27 May 2015 – 30 Sep 2015

Bold Tendencies, London

åyr

Aspects of Change

Installation commissioned by Bold Tendencies
Guest-curated by Attilia Fattori Franchini
 

ÅYR transforms the space of the car park through a series of punctual interventions that use both the language of domesticity and interior public spaces.

In Aspects of Change, ÅYR explores the so-called young, fresh, thriving, eclectic, authentic, local, multicultural, colourful, pretty, bustling, vibrant, new, independent, hidden, pressed, organic, up-and-coming qualities of this transitory urban state with an installation in Level 8 of the car park. Playing with the interior quality of the site, the work extends the domestic research to a more urban condition. It raises questions about the existence of the local and the authentic within globalised production patterns, whether it is fair to call that transient space home, and if self-initiated projects are ultimately a form of self-sabotage

“Gentrification is a funky beast. A plea, a prospect, a curse. It’s the assertive mantra of London’s real-estate frontiering. And still, I can’t seem to get an uber out of Peckham. What happened to that bridge project connecting Peckham to Shoreditch? The beautification of existing infrastructure is integral to the contemporary processes of regeneration… I am so excited for the new Vetements shop. Why does the powerlessness of the State have to look so twee. An urban wallpaper that inevitably tends to its own obliteration. Cold-pressed Bellenden Road. Tumbleweaves. Reclaimed-happiness. Chem sesh in South Clapham. Split-Welfare. Regeneration refers to that distinct process by which suburban areas of the city previously reckoned as unapproachable, are over a certain amount of time ameliorated and rendered appetitive for external speculation. Do you take cards? Peckham is being regenerated. It’s young, fresh, contactless and thriving… I miss you Dalston. I just got the best shoes at Rye Lane Market. Your almond milk latte has never been this violent.”

PRESS / REVIEWS

2 Jul 2016

åyr :: Home Alone

On art, architecture, and domestic effects of digitalization

Samsung’s Smart TVs come with a fine-print warning: if you enable voice recognition, your spoken words will be ‘captured and transmitted to a third party’, so you might not want to discuss personal or sensitive information in front of your TV. Even if voice recognition is disabled, Samsung will still collect your metadata – what and when you watch, and including facial recognition – though you won’t be able to use their interactive features. The SmartSeries Bluetooth toothbrush from Oral-B, a Procter & Gamble company, connects to a brushing app in your smartphone, which keeps a detailed record of your dental hygiene. The company advertises that you can share such data with your dentist, though, in a privatized health market, it’s more likely the purpose of such technology is to share data with your insurance company.

The more ubiquitous technology becomes, the less its presence is noticeable; its invisibility however, renders us, its users, transparent. The cultural logic of the information age is predicated on an inversion of the gaze: within this fusion of surveillance and control, the screen, as Jonathan Crary has noted, ‘is both the object of attention and (the object) capable of monitoring, recording and cross-referencing attentive behaviour.’ Data processing – whose reaches span the NSA, credit rating agencies, health insurance providers, up to the sorting algorithms used by Google or Instagram – is predictive, modelling future actions on previous behaviour. As such, as Orit Halpern argued in her 2015 book Beautiful Data, data processing implies a model of temporality in which the past is a standing reserve of information, waiting to be mined. This information is used to build user profiles, which in turn will determine the outcome of student loan and health insurance applications, credit scores, or whether you are placed on a ‘no-fly’ list. This might seem anodyne, but as Hito Steyerl notes in A Sea of Data (published this year in the e-flux journal) the Human Rights Data Analysis Group estimates that around 99,000 Pakistanis have been wrongly classified as terrorists by the NSA’s SKYNET program. The potential political usages of these structures include the power of any regime to stamp out dis-sidence in a preemptive manner, by meting out forms of informal punishment like employee transfers or loan denials.

After the global surveillance disclosures of the past few years, we have grown increasingly aware that our affective devices double as control mechanisms, and that sorting algorithms curate our experiences, both on- and, by extension, offline. This nexus of communication and control will be intensified by the introduction of the Internet of Things (IoT). Once our homes become fully equipped with a number of smart appliances, as Evgeny Morozov recently argued in an op–ed for the Financial Times, daily interaction with data-capturing devices will become virtually unavoidable. Your fridge will signal that you are running out of milk to Tesco’s drone delivery service. Your microchipped cat will let himself in and ‘meow’ recognition software will signal a smart can-opener to prepare his meal. Convenient as it may all sound, you will be living inside a world of biometric analyses and pattern recognition that fully captures and profiles its users to place financial wagers on their short- and long-term future.

For a film (Patterns of Life, 2015) included in the recent, large group exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin – ‘Nervous Systems: Quantified Life and the Social Question’, co-curated by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective, and Anselm Franke – artist Julien Prévieux employed dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet. The dancers enact the ways data can be extracted from bodies in motion in order to create ‘patterns of activity’, subsequently used to marginalise or criminalise their targets. Also within ‘Nervous Systems’, the collective Tactical Tech (Maya Indira Ganesh, Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski) staged a mock customer centre called The White Room. Staffed with tech greeters, The White Room offers a tour through the newest developments in apps and wearable technologies – fitness trackers, subcutaneous contraceptive implants, biometric ID cards – along with insight into their possible grievances: punitive insurance premiums, corporate control over employees’ fertility, financial capture of even destitute citizens. The area also presents makeshift solutions for subverting their usage: a wall-plug that allows for unauthorized editing of information read on wireless devices, or a metronome to deceive your fitness tracker. Playful as these seem, the premise of the exhibition is ominous: our socialization is at odds with the current convergence of financialization and digital tech.

Architecture collective åyr, who will participate in the British Pavilion, ‘Home Economics’, for the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice this coming May, echoed similar concerns about the changing nature of domesticity amid the corporatization of intimate spaces in a recent article for the Harvard Design Magazine. The collective describe how the family home and the nuclear family were historically co-constituted, and how the corporate capture of the former will impact the organization of the latter, as much as implying an overhauling of governmentality. The smart home, and by extension, the smart city, have the potential to become the interface for the mediatization (and subsequent financialization) of all aspects of life. For the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice, åyr (which was formerly known as AIRBNB Pavilion, but had to change its name due to legal pressure) staged an exhibition inside apartments rented on Airbnb, and more recently, in their 2015 project Comfort Zone for Frieze London, they installed a sequence of Ikea-like bedrooms inside the fair. For the forthcoming 9th Berlin Biennale åyr plan to make an installation mimicking the aesthetics of a ‘feature wall’, entangling confinement and intimacy, addressing the way personal (even intimate) items are forced to operate as financial assets.

Within the biopolitical organization of the modern era, the domestic space functioned as a buffer zone against the violence of industrial regimentation. But this secluded domesticity also promoted social isolation, universalizing bourgeois protocols and thus curtailing working class solidarity networks and collective agency. In Living and Working: How To Live Together, 2015, the architectural office Dogma (co-founded by Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara) examine alternative models of communal living, such as monasteries, Charles Fourier’s Phalanx, or early Soviet experiments, in order to reconfigure the notion of ‘family’. Recognizing how affective labour has been captured by the post-Fordist economy, Dogma’s forms of communal living and facility sharing aim to create a form of architectural commons which would bypass the trapping of the public-vs.-private space space debate, thus making identity less pliable to industry.

In Venice, ‘Home Economics’ (curated by Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams), in which Dogma is included, also aims to recover the social mandate of architecture, by decoupling the notion of the home from the imperatives of real estate value. To tackle the shortage of available housing, the curators argue, novel living arrangements need to be created, ideally arrangements that can prove impervious to financial speculation. In this, the curators echo Le Corbusier’s famous statement ‘it is the question of building which lies at the root of the social unrest of today’, and the solution must be either ‘architecture or revolution.’ But within a fully financialized economy, the housing crisis might prove more difficult to solve by means of architecture alone.

The current media ecology doesn’t simply do away with any reasonable expectation of privacy: it also erodes traditional forms of ownership. Millennials are priced out of the housing market not because there is a housing shortage but because the economy is geared towards asset inflation and rent extraction. General Motors and John Deere, for instance, have argued that copyright law cannot conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software, denying owners the right to repair electronic equipment they’ve purchased. Under the twin pressures of financialization and what is called the ‘sharing economy’, capital has also overcome the need to pay formal salaries: the digital economy replaces formal benefits, like salaries, pensions, and social safety nets, with informal ones, like the ability to lease your apartment, spare time or even your appliances. Dogma’s project for Venice relates to temporary, precarious forms of labour: from student visas to internships and zero-hour contracts. From this perspective economical exploitation is intimately linked with political oppression. The question of privacy versus surveillance pales in comparison to the question of privatization versus public property. As McKenzie Wark noted in his essay Renotopia (2015) (a portmanteau combining ‘renovation’ and ‘utopia’) the great socialist utopia that actually got built is service infrastructure; having private companies as the sole providers of publicly needed services implies a fundamental social division between a digital plutocracy and its ‘dumb’ users.

Evgeny Morozov recently argued in The Guardian that whereas the struggles for post-colonial emancipation were fought over the ownership of land, the defining struggle of our times will be fought over the ownership of the digital infrastructure. But the battle will be uphill, as Seb Franklin suggests in Control (2015), digital technologies provide us not simply with the tools but also with the body of metaphors we use to describe today’s challenges. Bill Gates talks about the digital nervous system; we tend to describe the internet as if it were a sentient being, endowed with agency; our material objects are permeated by information flows, from the DNA code to financial algorithms. And we fantasize about immersive environments in which our neural activities would be directly linked onto networks. Artist Melanie Gilligan fictionalized these epistemic materials in her miniseries, The Common Sense (2014): through the usage of an oral prosthesis called ‘the Patch’, users are able to tap into each other’s emotions. In order to stave off her mounting debt, a young mother-to-be decides to monetize the experience of her unborn child, which is seemingly soothing to other users. Tawdry as it may sound, ‘the Patch’ is a logical extension of our current modalities of mediated experience; rather than a prospective future, it provides us with a magnified picture of our present.

Ana Teixeira Pinto Frieze D/E No. 24 Summer 2016

 

 


2 Jun 2016

åyr :: Philipp Ekardt in conversation with åyr

Philipp Ekardt What’s your relationship with contemporary art?

Alessandro Bava I think that our relationship to contemporary art is, at least initially, almost parasitical. Since our backgrounds are in architecture, our interest in contemporary art was a very deliberate move towards another field and another way of operating. We were interested in the type of agency you have as an artist rather than as an architect. So I think our interest in contemporary art has to do with opportunity and opportunism.

Octave Perrault Also when we were architecture students a few years ago, we found that artists were addressing questions that were being ignored within architecture education.

PE Would you have an example for how an artist would approach these questions?

OP I’m thinking mainly about things related to the Internet. I remember the first time I saw a Ryan Trecartin video. I was in L.A. and I was just mind-blown. I thought “wow, that is exactly what I would like to see,” but I just didn’t know where to start in architecture.

AB I think we started working at a time in which there was a vacuum in architecture, it was very conservative and obsessed with the canon. So I think we all drifted towards this other realm.

PE As an outsider I find it really interesting to hear you say that it’s an alternative in terms of the agency you might have had within the architect/client relationship. There was a moment when there was a very strong interest in architecture in other realms, in film or in media theory, and now it seems to be that architecture is also falling for what I like to call “the promise of art.” For some reason the art system at this point really draws in all these discourses, it seems to be very accommodating. It’s also from within the art system that there’s an interest in architecture. It’s mutual.

AB Absolutely. I think, beyond us and what we do, maybe you see a problem in art being too accommodating, but at the same time it’s also a matter of architecture being in crisis. So people are looking for other outputs.

PE Looking at your show at Project Native Informant I thought “this is really interesting, and I can see where they’re coming from and also that this emerges out of an engagement with the digital which they’re probably aware of through their own skill, through architecture.” There’s probably a difference now vis-à-vis the art system where a lot of people are interested in the digital as a phenomenon but it’s not really part of their training.

AB This is actually for me a big part of why we decided to work as an art collective, because there was this gap that I perceived while I was studying architecture, acquiring this set of skills, and being interested in the digital, certain technologies, certain approaches from a purely pragmatic point of view. Then I saw artists being interested in the same things from this different metaphorical or symbolic angle. There was an urgency to investigate what was happening and try to address it critically rather than just acquiring the skills.

Fabrizio Ballabio Whereas it seems to me that within art practices digital technologies are often conceived of as instruments through which a work is then produced which might convey a completely different meaning, we actually work with the instrument as a piece in itself. For our works in the Newcomers show at Project Native Informant, we didn’t just use the renders as an art form; the rendering as a medium and our collaboration with the renders was also part of the work.

PE Which is really interesting because all of you guys probably have a much more thorough and practical understanding of rendering as a tool. But the art system also allows you to thematize that tool. You were using the art system to investigate the instrumentality of the digital. Which is really different from a lot of post-Internet art which often just builds a rhetoric around digitality.

AB There’s a big fascination with what was almost a big uncovering of this whole set of approaches that in architecture were completely unquestioned. Things that for architects are just technical.

PE How does your collaboration function? Are there rules? How do you collaborate?

AB We try to structure it in a way that is a hallucination of how an architectural office works. It’s almost a parody of that. The structure is horizontal, an exchange that has very few rules. It’s very flexible.

Luis Ortega Govela Everyone has their own process and it comes in in this very schizophrenic way. So everyone respects each other’s process, but then at the same time it is like ‘baby’s first architecture office’ somehow, this imagination of how it would work.

FB I would say now that we’re two years in, we’re starting to find more consolidated ways in which each one of us contributes. So, it is becoming more structured, even though how things happen is still very much a mystery.

AB The most interesting thing in our process is the idea of the project, actually. We approach an artwork as a project, a sculpture as a project, and that has a completely different set of rules and dynamics from another type of process.

PE One specific aspect I wanted to ask you about relates to the translation of the digital, implementing something in analog spaces that exists also in the digital realm. Looking at your work in situ it’s very clear to me that this is a pictorial type that emerges really from digital technologies, but then you have to think about how you get that into the analog. Do you have rules for that?

AB I think we also exploit the absurdity of the render as a tool. When the render is the work we always also produce renders of the exhibitions beforehand, because it’s pushing the fictional aspect of the render and doing something that will never end up looking like the exhibition. We translate the digital image into the reality of the installation.

PE This is really interesting to me because it situates your practice as an in-between system, but also within the architectural system. You were saying there’s always this divide between the render and the built house, which used to be the model and the built house... but an analog model can never be as striking or as sexy as a digital render. Also, you operate in a sort of meta-office, which is also a subject per se within the architectural discourse. OMA for instance used to be an office that communicated very strongly “we are an office, we have researchers...,” you seem to be also drawing on that experience.

AB I think we definitely situate ourselves in that lineage of people and the evolution of the architectural office. But there is this idea of multidisciplinarity and the office as something that is part of the architectural discourse, as you say, and I think maybe we are the extreme consequence of that kind of evolution.

FB At the same time I think what really distinguishes us on the one hand from the art collective and on the other from the architecture office is that somehow there is a really strong tension within the way we work together between radical individualism and complete subjection to the collective force. So it starts to become almost a second character through which I can express independently of taste, of identity, of self-definition. It’s very liberating and it also gives you something to work against.

PE I imagine it’s a way of exploring that way of working which is also liberated from the client/office relationship, where you would always have to take into consideration certain conditions of realization.

OP I was wondering if the installations we make are not model in themselves, or experiments for things that would be. They are some kind of tests with the ghost ideas of maybe building a building at some point. It’s probably never going to happen, but it’s been a driving force for our thinking.

PE The interesting thing is that within the history of art there are various practices that talk of that real life or actual-to-size model. Think of Thomas Demand’s practice: photograph something, then rebuild it in paper to size and re-photograph it. Even in contemporary discourse there is the idea of the generic. Laruelle provides one version of it.

AB We deal with the generic in terms of decoration, in patterns. We wrote a lot about Airbnb and this new generic image of the interior and the new international style which is emerging.

LOG The generic as a normative thing, as a way to construct a norm and a habit somehow. I’m really interested in that, in how that image of the generic also creates a normative attitude towards space.

PE One could think of a phenomenon that I’d like to call “aesthetic normalism” responding to this new taste for the normal. The idea is how can I influence this by making it modular for instance, whereas we’re dealing with something which is like a new normal now.

FB Well, it’s a different way also of understanding flexibility as a concept. It’s something which is easily adaptable and which you can easily adapt to. I guess that’s also interesting in relation to the normal, the norm.

AB But to me the new normal as it presents itself today is also tied to identity and in a way lifestyle. The idea of the generic in modernism is trying to take away identity and present itself as flexible and adaptable.

PE I first encountered you online, when you were still “that other Pavilion.” I was wondering if that makes a difference to you or if also your experience was that suddenly something you were doing for some reason generated that immense response online.

LOG Totally, but I think it was also a very conscious decision for the first pavilion to have a digital existence. It was almost never considered to be an actual physical space.

AB It was actually constructed as a performance, as an event played out online. Not in a corny way of being an online thing, but it generated this wave online that had to do with a certain fascination or unlocking of a certain idea. 

PE It’s probably the case with your entire practice: as you say it’s “not the corny online thing,” it’s not digital art, it’s not an online practice, but it used online as a tool.

LOG I think that’s how we conceptualize most of our work: you can operate within the digital and the physical but they don’t need to be the same. They can be different strategies that try to subvert the same thing we’re trying to deal with.

OP We try not to separate them, we don’t see them as different. The digital is just a thing of the world that we are trying to reconcile with what is ‘really’ there.

AB The installations we’re doing for the two Biennales we’re participating in, the Architecture Biennale in Venice and the Art Biennale in Berlin, have essentially to do with these ideas.

CURA NO. 22 2016

 


21 Sep 2015

åyr :: Famili

Proxy Paranoia or Technological Camaraderie

åyr, Untitled, 2015.

 

“Will it replace me?”

The question is posed innocently, yet the stakes are clear. The context of the query is home automation (#it) and its potential “side effects” on members of the nuclear family (#me). 

Already in 1966, home economist Ruth Sutherland raised this question and other concerns about the development of ECHO IV (Electronic Computer Home Operator), an ur-version of what we might today call a smart object. ECHO IV, which was born in her and her husband Jim’s basement as a bricolage of obsolete computer parts, soon grew into a sophisticated machine. In years to come, using meticulous flowcharts translated into computer-coded language, they would program ECHO IV to administer basic domestic tasks such as budget tabulations and accounting. The machine’s early capacities were perhaps modest, but the couple’s speculations on its future potential were not: temperature regulation, nutritional value intakes, parental control, educational programs for children—back then, all these computer functions still seemed like fiction. Today, they are standard offerings from the tech industry. 

As for the question, Ruth was swift to realize that her chunky piece of machinery raised fundamental issues for the family and technology. To an extent, her concern seems to have anticipated many contemporary debates around smart technologies and their pervasiveness within the domestic sphere—an angst that has been reformulated time and again over the last few decades. One need only look at how this anxiety has manifested as a daunting cinematic subject, where the smart house goes from best friend to threat (Disney Channel’s Smart House, 1999), where the mechanized girl-next-door becomes a manipulative assassin (Ex Machina, 2015), and where the family robot takes the human family hostage (BBC Channel 4’s Humans, 2015). Liberation, enslavement, emancipation, alienation—the confrontational relation between #it (technology) and #me (the individual) persists. Yet, it is only by acknowledging their interwoven histories can we start to think about potential households of the future.

ECHO IV marked the beginning of the digitization of domestic labor and its associated relations. It was a prototype of the contemporary project of smartness that now systemically applies itself to cities, buildings, and objects, so much so that we almost forget its bodily roots. Before cunning, elegance, or efficiency, “smart” was originally used to describe an object that caused a sharp pain to the body. There is an inherent violence in the cunning and elegant efficiency of modern smartness, and this smart violence is always said to be positively violent for the body, to augment the body. Examples abound: the corset or the waist trainer helps and forces the body into measurements that denote beauty and taste. It is a gendered technology that normalizes and regularizes deviant bodies, giving them value. The waist trainer literally molds or smarts the body into a specific form—a true biopolitical technique. Similarly, the corridor, familial love, private ownership, domestic appliances, the mortgage, the garage, and so forth are domestic technologies that have participated in making subjects fit for the specific behaviors and tasks demanded by capitalist modes of production. They have been adapting subjects to the permanently recomposing organization of production. In this sense, the smart home must be framed in continuity with a rich history of architectural techniques devoted to the production of subjectivities. So, when Sutherland asks if these technologies will replace her, she senses that her self-as-housewife is under threat; she wonders what type of subjectivity awaits her.

Full screen hdm41 ayr humans
Promotional scene from the first episode of Humans, 2015.
Full screen hdm41 ayr nestcam
Nest Labs, Nest Cam, 2015. 
Full screen hdm41 ayr amazon echo
 

To discuss the implications of the smart home for the family, one has to start by acknowledging that the nuclear family and the house-home have been historically co-constitutive. Reflecting on their correlation, the norms that define the subjects of the family can most often be traced to specific domestic inventions developed to optimize the family as a productive entity. One such invention is the modern kitchen, notoriously promoted as an instrument for the liberation of the housewife from housework. The story is well known: effectively, the kitchen allowed the housewife to manage domestic work without assistance, and it was instrumental in the diffusion of bourgeois domesticity beyond the wealthy bourgeoisie who could afford domestic workers. The modern kitchen is partly responsible for the fading of the bourgeoisie-proletariat dualism—it was part of an engine that produced a working class with bourgeois aspirations and patterns of consumption, a middle class. If this invention allowed many families to have access to some goods and (sort of) opened up wage labor to women, it also spread the rigidity of bourgeois gender identities throughout society. Further, it isolated the wife from collective spaces and practices that domestic work previously entailed, like the communal washhouse or intergenerational childcare. The paradigmatically modern revolution brought in by this “machine for living” is an important precedent to the politics that seek to liberate through mechanization. By the way, liberation from what? On this question, Endnotes journal recently said it best: “Even if the nourishing, washing of clothes, and so on, can be done more efficiently, the time for childcare is never reduced. You cannot look after children more quickly: they have to be attended to 24 hours a day.”

A similar tension resides in “smart home” rhetoric. Google’s Nest, Revolv, and Samsung’s SmartThings, among other devices and software, claim to radically expand the modernist domestic project by turning the house into an intelligent machine, intricately wired and integrated with communication facilities that will free family members from routine domestic work. And yet, one is left to wonder whose time is being saved, where it is being directed, and to what end. Yes: Nest Cams are designed to watch out for your family when you can’t; Nest’s Auto-Away function manages your energy usage while you’re rushing out the door; Echo (not Ruth’s ECHO, but Amazon’s) can help you with your shopping and to-do lists. But are smart technologies going to give you more time to cuddle your dog, or are they really just optimizing your availability on TaskRabbit?

Meanwhile, what is actually taking place is an unre-lenting erosion of what had been one of the fundamental aspects of modern politics: privacy, that 18th-century notion essential to the composition of the private individual and his or her private property. Think of how the corridor was instrumental in the making of the modern city. The corridor produced a city of rooms with a single doorway that regularized the intrusion of the other, and where one couldn’t help but compose him or herself as an individual. If domestic technologies such as the corridor and the kitchen have always been interfaces involved in the production of publicness and privacy, today, through the multiplication of Wi-Fi-enabled devices—from thermostats to washing machines, lightbulbs to cutlery, each with its own firmware and capacity to exchange data—the architectural membranes that used to mediate this boundary (walls, windows, and doors) have radically changed in their meanings.

In broad terms, two types of subjects bear the effects of this disruption. On the one hand, there’s the young, post-Fordist, ultra-connected entrepreneurial individual. Here, smart domestic appliances are yet more gadgets augmenting the self, linking to other apps, devices, profiles, platforms. On the other hand, there’s the main object of all this smartness: the pristine, archetypal nuclear family—the loving, heterosexual, married couple successfully raising two happy kids in the house they own. Here, smartness speaks to the traditional middle class, whose familiar existence is assaulted by the neoliberal condition (job insecurity, bad credit but full mortgage), threatened by social insecurities (the “poor,” the “homeless,” the “unemployed,” the “foreigner”) and the evils of the Internet. Technology presents itself as a remedy to the grave ills of the mid-20th-century family, the one now forced to rent, who divorces, whose kids love guns and porn, and who is still unable to blame capitalism. Obviously, the total control offered by smartness will not save this family, but its dramatizing rhetoric thrives on generalized paranoia and a perpetual state of exception. It exploits the real violence that the nuclear family experiences under neoliberalism. We could even argue that it reinforces the narrative of the perfect home under siege in order to induce family members to open their intimate relations to digital mediation, so that they can be measured, surveyed, and made valuable in the new data economy. The very fortress of the nuclear family built for the expansion of industrial capital must now be mined: it is a deposit of uncoded information that can only spew money when properly tapped and processed.

The development of this large-scale enterprise has required its own dedicated data-mining tools and machines, and the smartphone—a single body’s computer—remains the primordial device for the scaling of this smartness. This cyborg augmentation makes sound, sight, location, and thoughts available for datafication by channeling the interactions between bodies through devices and applications. User profiles and passwords authenticate information and actions that govern the myriad exchanges one has within the greater network. In the domestic realm, smart home products allow for smart biopolitics, recording the production of bodily information in a format suited to the control mechanisms of the network. In an age when so much value is derived from information, immaterial labor, and the surveying of everything and everyone, it is not surprising that new biopolitical technology aims to digitize as much of life as possible. This general measuring and quantification of the world is reminiscent of early cartographical endeavors and urban surveys, the crucial difference being that the information gathered is now made eminently profitable. While Google is expanding its reach beyond the mere mapping of territory to mapping interiors so that bodies and things are tracked in real time on one single map, smart wearables are becoming dangerously close to life itself: they monitor the activity, hygiene, and health of your profiled body in order to adjust its immediate market value by computing your reputation, friends, and likes as the stock options of your body-as-corporation.

The fate of the family in the midst of the smart project is unclear. We could claim that the family is becoming a sort of free association of individuals whose bind isn’t prescribed by a dubious idea of nature, with its genders and bloodlines, as was the case in the stereotypical modern family. The elemental community of modernity has in many ways lost its instrumentally naturalized purpose of reproducing the working class, relieving the family of its former defining attributes—heterosexuality, marriage, and children. Furthermore, the futurity that industrial capitalism conferred on the modern family and its children was intrinsically linked to its insatiable need for labor power. Now that the abundance and specificity of data is what generates value, blood relation and marital love appear to offer less futurity than the individual’s potential for securing affective relationships with other individuals: capital has taken over affect and sociality to the point that the most valuable good is no longer a young worker, but rather information—wherever it might come from. In Alexander R. Galloway’s words, “biomass [i.e life], not social relations, is today’s site of exploitation.”

This crisis of traditional familial futurity can be located within a larger crisis of futurity under neoliberalism and the financialization of capital. Contemporary forms of “immaterial” production, the debt economy, and the digitization of individuals and their environment have a point in common: they all require life to be turned into data to then be arranged by computerized protocols. Profiles and platforms keep track of the human capital of individual bodies, facilitating, for instance, their creditworthiness or locatability. Debt collapses modern futurity on itself through inhuman statistical predictions and estimates. The more measurements, the more information, and the faster purposes, positions, opinions, and meanings are multiplied and shuffled. Financial capital thrives on data, on pure information, and ignores actual lived realities. The notion of project cannot survive neoliberal governance and its ultra-rapid calculations toward the most immediate profit. The redefinition of power through this shift of knowledge obliterates the classical modern model based on the formulation of a project at the temporal scale of a human life. The integration of smartness throughout the city is the familiar tip of this shift from projection to codification. This might be why the family shatters as the slowness of its traditional reproductive project has become invisible to financial capital: unlike industrial capital that has to administer its workforce, algorithmic computation may be saying that there is a lot of quick money to be made by dismembering the family, even if the remaining subjects—the primary producers of information—decrease in number.

There is a widening gap between the reality of the domestic experience and the resistant image of the archetypal home found on real estate websites, Ikea, or Airbnb. This image resists because we do not know how to think of ourselves without belonging to a modern family, and because new homes are still built according to the modern family model. Nevertheless, these same architectural spaces have hosted other possibilities—to work, to be queer, to be a roommate, to have smart family relations. Typical domestic architectures, the activities/relationships in domestic spaces, and the domestic feeling of home have become very much autonomous from one another. Architecture no longer constructs domesticity the way it used to. The set of bodily relations constructed by the arrangement of rooms, walls, and doors of a house is being upset by the displacement of familial sociality over to the digital platforms of neoliberalism. The family, formed in dialectical opposition to publicness and production, now finds itself relating in the same digital language and network as the military and corporations. Because the digital realm and its platformed administration are centralizing all relationships between bodies and things in the world, the productive separation of spheres that structured the modern city are becoming obsolete; the modern city itself has a completely new topology.

The image of a city of ubiquitous production is reminiscent of Archizoom’s No-Stop City. However, considering the ways in which value is produced today, this condition will not take the architectural form of an open-plan office. And it won’t necessarily take an architectural form in the traditional, typological, sense. The translation into data of all-that-is—whether bodies, masses of bodies, objects, spaces, emotions, history, future, styles, and so forth—renders architecture instrumental as a vector of information that must be quantitatively mapped and rendered profitable to commercial operators by means of qualitative evaluation. This process takes the form of a feedback loop where the extraction of data becomes a source of pattern finding, which in turn feeds back into defining where, why, and most importantly how we live. In this context, where data is the brick and mortar of contemporary knowledge, it is by very definition impossible to make predictions on what the future family or home might end up looking like. We only know that it will not be immaterial and that increasingly, space-data correlations will be the new frontier of data-driven economies. Meanwhile, while algorithms draw our life patterns out of our likes and our memes, we, like the Addams Family, gladly feast upon those who would subdue us.

Published in Harvard Design Magazine No. 41 F/W 2015

 


15 Jul 2015

åyr :: My Flip Phone Brought Me Here

The Modern subject is usually defined by its epistemological capacity. Enlightened at heart, it is composed of a body and a mind evolving in an homogeneous space and time; it is mostly conscious, aware of the world to the extent of his/her knowledge. This model for subjectivity continues to produce the city both formally and as an abstraction. If this model has been under criticism since it emerged, today, the lived experience of space is being transformed more directly than before through the devices, software and networks that affect the sensing capacity of the subject. As it is possible to access quantities of information at a distance, through deserts and walls, it is also possible to be governed in the same manner. This aspect of the contemporary urban experience has notably exposed the inadequacy of the dialectical separation between spheres that have produced the modern subject and its habitat: the modern city. How to think the city when the domestic is public, the personal is political, and reproduction is production? How is the city transformed by the digital quantification of space which indexes both the living and nonliving and allows it to be managed in almost real-time? These are only partial formulations of the actual challenges brought by the heterogeneous dynamics at work today with the evolution of labor, technologies and subjectivity. A contemporary analysis of the city needs to account for the destabilization of the dichotomies that still constitute the subject at large, whether they are body or mind, human or nonhuman, and material or immaterial. In this regard, there is something actually fascinating in the fact that objects or cities are now wished with a particular personality trait, and be called smart.

The image of the smart city made of an endless assemblage of automated connected machines is impressive and daunting. Whether it one sees it as exploiting or liberating, it is problematic to reduce the smart city to a perfectly oiled system constantly monitoring and optimizing everything and every one’s behavior. Techno-utopian enthusiasm and the total hopelessness of usual critique are mirror images of each other. Both views bear many traits of that fin de siecle feeling that was generated by the industrial city: the anxious fascination for the machines that dehumanize, for the labor that individualizes and for the spectacle that depoliticizes. Yet, the industrial city hasn’t produced only evils, or eradicated the political altogether. The technological has a sublime and it is ambivalent: machines do not serve or enslave, they do both and neither simultaneously. This is an important premise for a conceptualization of the interplay between subjectivity, technology and the city that doesn’t essentialize burdensome humanisms.

In the project of the smart city, it is the smart home that raises the most concerns. The infiltration of sensing and connected machines within the domestic unit disturbs. Not even the home is safe ; there is no place to go, no room to hide as surveillance appears to be ubiquitous and commodification is subsuming the unconscious. Faced with these observations that imperil the precious separations of spheres, some architects turn to Ray Kurzweil (the inventor of the ‘singularity’) or opt for an exodus from technology, while others attempt to reincarnate the past home by building Faraday cages like they used to build atomic bunkers. It is not that the techs of the smart home are innocent but that it only seems difficult to analyze a condition based on the uncertain effects of objects and gadgets that are still at the stage of prototypes. It is more productive to analyze the infrastructure and the habits that are already in operation and have allowed the imagination of the smart thermostats and fridges that are threatening to invade our homes. Technology isn’t reducible to machines and techniques. It is an immersive presence that hardly leaves anything spare, especially in this so-called information age. From the street to the home, from the self to the world, the city as a whole has already been transformed by portable personal devices, the internet, and the oligopoly of online platforms.

The home points somewhere, to a place which doesn’t need to be described too precisely. It is diffuse, but it has a permanence which confers comfort and belonging. It brings psychic appeasement and physical protection. It is the space of personal intimacy and of the ‘family’, that inalienable and natural-ized datum of the community, the one that continues to condition all futurity. In spite of the generalized precarity that is hitting our cities and turning our houses into temporary places of occupation that are most often impersonal, dysfunctional and constantly subject to the landlord’s or the state’s invitation to leave, the home doesn’t show much wear. The home is a (idealized) feeling rather than a typology. Renting, short-term jobs and serial monogamy are destroying the house-home, yet the home can exist quite autonomously from its architectural concretization. Even the homey aesthetics – an image, an ambience, a feeling – is seemingly strengthened by the very processes that are destroying its typology. The abundant flux of images that are produced and shared online show the home clearly and coherently even if its actual access is increasingly hazardous. One only has to compare the domestic reality glimpsed on a Skype catch-up with the CG imagery of the IKEA catalogue to see the gap between reality and representation. This tension is certainly unsettling yet it doesn’t only lead to somber conclusions. The widening distance between image and reality may very well be a heightened form of alienation with techno-fascist undertones, but we should prevent ourselves from this modernist masculine idealism that believes in actual reality and fears illusions. We should also avoid regretting the home as a safe haven of peacefulness. That would blatantly disregard the invaluable feminist critiques and only demonstrates a conservative empathy for one of the keystone of the bourgeois project and its rampant forms of oppressions. Without belittling the violence of the neoliberal dynamics that are currently at work, it is politically more promising to see the tension between the reality and the image of the home as the chance to liberate hominess from certain power relations. There might be opportunity in crisis, even for emancipatory politics. Thus, could we disentangle these questions by considering that it is not a disappearance of the home, but a displacement? What if the home was able to detach itself from the house as a consequence of the devices and platforms accommodating some of its qualities, or rather providing aspects of its presence?

It is frightening to know that the companies of the smart city are now developing ridiculously small and cheap sensing devices powered by the electromagnetic wave of surrounding WiFi signals and communicating with their headquarters on 3G. Even if there are Smart TVs that have already been busted recording all our living room conversations, it is still unlikely that the appliances of the smart home have more potential for evil than the portable devices that centralize our sociability and have already become extension of our memories. Even as an undeniable instrument of surveillance, the smartphone still confers a feeling which is more comforting than threatening. With it, it is hard to be alone or to be lost as a map or a contact are always at hand. It possesses an affective presence which is particularly palpable when the battery runs out. The smart devices that are currently in use extend the mind in such a way that they have become a part of the body. The subject of contemporary metropolises can hardly be thought without her devices, and the contemporary city has to be understood as populated by smart bodies made of flesh and smartphones. In addition to this, the smart objects and the smart city originate from what the smart bodies are already performing together. It is this body who is able to bring the exterior inside the house and to bring that homey presence to the exterior. It is the smart body that allows the home to be partially autonomous from the materiality of what is still thought as domestic space. This extended model of subjectivity goes beyond the irreducible fleshiness of the modern subject. The devices, networks and platforms produce the materiality and the spatiality through which the contemporary subject comes to being. They cannot be seen as external to its constitution. They are the infrastructure within which bodies bathe and through which they develop. They structure contemporary subjectivity, and they provide are strange combination of comfort and control that isn’t dissimilar to the one of the bourgeois home.

It is important to insist that this detachment of the home from its architecture isn’t an apology for homelessness or the transfiguration of dispossession into nomadism. This frame of thought does not disregard the vital necessity of shelter. On the contrary, the ambition behind this conception of the smart home is to find means to produce architecture that remedies the urgency of the contemporary housing question, both conceptually and materially. It isn’t that the materiality of the house has been replaced by networks and devices, but that the typology of the house is being separated from the feeling of the home partly because of network and devices. One still needs a place to sleep, a place to cook, a place to be alone, a place to wash, a place to be comfortable, but it may not be owned, or designed for a family or a bachelor. Who and what to design it for? Access to this type of place is essential to feeling home and the challenge is to figure an architectural rationale in tune with contemporary hominess. The typology of the house may not be completely outdated but it drags with it a burdened history regarding ownership, permanence, labour and gender. Disentangling the home from the house is an attempt to retain the political, communal and collective concepts associated to the home while discharging it from some of its problematic elements. And by analogy, the ubiquitous presence of the new technology suggests that there is much to learn from the subjectivities that have historically existed in the home and the ones that have managed to construct themselves within and against the oppression of the norms. The home needs to be queered as a whole, as a set of social relations, a series of aesthetic codes, and as an architectural typology.

In the same way that the nuclear family, the home and the factory were the paradigmatic models of the modern city and its subject, the contemporary city needs the smart subject, the devices, the network and the platforms. Production is increasingly mediated and managed directly through them. Online profiles are becoming forms of identification that condition the access to certain production platforms to a greater extent than National identification systems. This is operative on many websites like Airbnb for instance, but there is also TaskRabbit who directly discriminates bodies that aren’t smart: one is asked to possess a smartphone in order to open an account on the platform and begin exchanging his/her labour power. There is also a strange parallel between the platforms of the (sharing) economy and the stock market as both places allow incorporated individuals to exchange shares depending on their reputations. Not to mention Ethereum, the latest project of extreme technoliberals who wish to establish this form of management of life to virtually everything. The emergence of this form of administration coincides with the post-Fordist inclination towards human capital as the dominant form of capitalist accumulation. Indeed, the profile is a proof of identity that defines individuality less by its mere existence as a living person than by its activity in a variety of existential domains. By archiving habits, friendships, diets, professional or religious practices, the subject is directly associated to a portfolio of conducts specifically related to his or her own behaviour with the world. In this manner, the profile becomes a medium that monitors the investments made by a person in its own self, and therefore its value. Human capital is so intrinsically embedded in the subject and its history that labor power can only be rented out or invested in through education programs, lifestyle choices, reputations and social associations. In this sense, the profile is the currency of the (sharing) economy to which individuals have to comply in order to be intelligible on the market. This new form of identification and valuation is intrinsically linked to informatics, computation and networks. Capitalist exchange and governance has relied on the the description of things – including bodies and ideas – into administrable data, which today is computable data. By creating and compiling its profiles, the contemporary subject makes its own self, its possessions and its experience of the world amenable to informatics, and therefore subject to being managed in this manner. The difficulty to resist this system comes from the fact that withdrawal excludes from work, and thus, excludes from life. It is what regulates the access to work and thus the capacity to live. It is an apparatus for the administration of life itself, i.e biopolitics.

We are at a moment when production is less about manufacture than the referencing of everything that exists into a format that suits this administration paradigm. Contemporary production is a metaproduction that operates through the seizing of unused resources, assets and talents with informatics. Architecture wasn’t spared from this process, and understanding the primacy of the packaging of things into computable information is crucial to the understanding of the contemporary city and its subjects.

Google Maps and Airbnb are archetypal to the current making of the world into computable and cognizable data. They are both platforms that map, archive and reference things according to a set of criteria that are intelligible to both computers and subjects so that they can be managed, administered and potentially monetized, either directly or indirectly. On Airbnb, what is exchanged between users on the platform is the temporary access to spaces. In order to make its platform functional, Airbnb had to build a database of both users and spaces according to a set of computable indexes that made their exchange possible. The profile requirements of the users and the ‘Certified by Airbnb’ flanked over the pictures of homes are parts of the formatting process that is required by the platform economy. These standards allow for such things to be cognizable by humans, manageable by computers and networks and ultimately to make them comparable according to the abstract system of universal equivalence i.e. money. Adorno illustrates this necessary process through the invention of the phonograph and the record. Together, the phonograph and the record allowed the resistant immateriality and ephemerality of music to be transformed into a commodity that can be desired and exchanged as such. He doesn’t fail to insist on the instrumental role that advertising and “the private arty home” plays to crystallize these into habits, lifestyles and needs. Without them, the commodity doesn’t come to life. Transposing this example to architecture in the age of platforms, the immediate questions are: Are certain architectural forms more intelligible to computer than others? What are the criteria that make a space more fit to its indexation? How to measure the indexability of architecture by platforms? Could a spatial taxonomy be constructed from this measure? What makes a space resistant to that form of biopolitical management?

To approach these new architectural challenges, a starting point is to look at the reasons why the only spaces that have been widely incorporated by platforms until now are the street and the home. On the one hand, the street is a continuous, public and accessible space along which punctual and rather fixed events are located. Google Maps could index this data and render it usable in a relatively straightforward manner by drawing on existing mapping technologies and orientation practices. On the other hand, the typical Western home was ripe to be exploited by platforms for a variety of reasons. First, a home is clearly identifiable due to its long history and the distinctness of its codes, norms and aesthetics. Because the image and the feeling of the home is globally shared (at least amongst the groups using these platforms), the signifiers of the home can perform like a currency. On a more architectonic register, the typology of the house is also adequate to its exchange on platforms because it is a precisely delineated spatial unit which possesses a specific set of describable functions, and which access to is regulated by one single individual (or a limited group i.e. the family, the couple, the roommate). These architectonic and aesthetic attributes of houses have allowed them to be referenced and made exchangeable with minimal logistics on platforms like Airbnb for instance. When the phonograph required the construction of an appreciation of music as recordings before being turned into a commodity, the typology of the house/home already possessed a heterogeneous set of qualities (representability, accessibility, materiality, price, usage, security, … ) that made it suited to the platforms of contemporary societies of control and its subjects. Apart from the domestic typology, the analysis of space according to their capacity to be assimilated by platforms questions other spaces: Why does the open-plan office seem to be a resistant typology to platforms? Being the archetypal typology for the most neoliberal forms of lives where there are no separation between production and reproduction, is the white cube gallery the prototype of platform architecture? It is also worth wondering if the curvaceous and continuous objects and spaces of parametric architecture are actually suited to this evolution of neoliberalism. How to index a chair when it also morphs into a table and a shelf? How to reference out a room when it is separated from the lobby and the café with a glass panel or a tilted plane? Is it a sort of cryptographic design practice, or what would be one? The delineation of spaces and objects is essential for their indexation and their assimilation on platforms. Nonetheless, the parametricists may have touched upon something by focusing on the envelope: it is easier to index a building that distinctly stands out from the rest of the city fabric.

If these interrogations are only sketches for a possible angle of analysis of the contemporary city, they nonetheless challenge architecture to develop a model of the city that overcomes the current limitations of the modern triad of the house/home, the factory and the street that have structured the city both materially and as an abstraction. However, what is proposed here isn’t calling for the complete rejection of the previous models. The uneven and antagonistic nature of capitalism asks for models that represent the contemporary condition not only more productively but chiefly, more strategically. In the same way that the house/home was never a purely reproductive unit or a place for inevitable love, framing the separation between the house and the home through devices, networks and platforms isn’t a perfect representation of the contemporary city. Today, it seems urgent to produce an image of the city that integrates the ways in which power operates through the emergent material and affective infrastructures that manage bodies, objects, rooms, streets, sociality and capital.

Volume #44 ‘On Display’ 15 July 2015