Saturday, October 17, 2009

Please Don't Pee on the Seats or Storm the Café : Nowcasting III

The image above from a guerrilla artist who changed a Los Angeles freeway sign to make its directions more legible wasn't mentioned by Julila Lupton in her talk about vernacular signage, "Signs and Misdemeanors," which started with this fabulous image of Tytus Andronikus and ended with the argument that when it came to education, "the design question and the writing question is the same question," as "more and more people are expected to write."

Speaking as an advocate for DIY practices that teach non-professionals to use "tools responsibly," Lupton argued that "the design cat is out of the design bag," and digital humanists would have to adjust. Perhaps her most Twittered line was that "it’s never to early to talk to your children about kerning," but a talk that began with a discussion of the difference between spring-loaded and open-ended toilet paper holders had some serious messages, despite her facetious answer to the question about "Why do Americans prefer that spring loaded model?" with an explanation of their willingness "to sacrifice security for liberty."

Next, she gave a number of other examples from her new book Design Your Life, which included inquiries into where baby carrots came from and why bras don’t fit, along with the observation that bra-wearers were "underrepresented at the conference." She explained that the book also contained some substantive advice that could be of value to digital humanists about third places and creativity theory, living with paper, and the art of procrastination, even if their "generalist approach to design" was aimed at women as the "footsoldiers in the new economy," who might be more included in their explanation of typeface design with their chosen examples of Dunkin Donuts vs. Tootsie Roll. She also said that the book was encouraging writing practices, specifically those that produced manifestos, and she showed the manifesto about design that she wrote with her sister Ellen Lupton, which asserted that design is thinking, design making, public, private, garbage, saving the world, communication, craft, technology, etc. (She drew comparisons to Anne Burdick's work on design as speculative and provocational the day before.)

Then she transitioned to a section on signage and how people must work in or navigate through public spaces, which in one of her sister's paintings was labeled with a "Yes -But" clause. She described a project with UCI graduate student Arden Stern about "how to do informal signage better" or "how to hang signs so they don’t ruin the world." As illustration, she showed several examples a few yards away from where the Nowcasting conference was taking place that direct potential visitors to the "photo classroom" and "photo lab." As a sign of a serious sign-makeover, she told how her sister had redone some ALL CAPS scotch-taped two-page signage in restroom with an elegant framed sign that preserved some of the original vitriol by ending with an instruction to "please don’t pee on the toilet seats" but phrased its instructions in verbiage far more genteel. (I too have always been interested in such signage, particularly signs in little Saigon that instruct new immigrants not to squat on the toilet seets, and I also have noted the gendered labor politics that is implicit in their messages, much like signs that ask people in office kitchens to wash their own dishes.)

As Lupton opined, "Ellen’s theory is that no one will take the signs down," given the "power of graphic design," but she also pointed to some more difficult examples of appropriation and improvised signage, as in the case of the work of Cardon Copy in redoing signs for cleaning ladies, regardless of the impositions and assumptions of class superiority in doing design for the working classes. She even cautioned that design could create a false sense of authority, as it did for those who placed trust in Erich Kofmel of the Sussex Centre for the Individual and Society. Although design might provide spit and polish to a University of California in crisis, it might also legitimize phishing and identity theft with design element. She cited Daniel Pink on "emotionally intelligent" signage and argued that even a trash can can serve as a message board. (For more on attempts to control waste with persuasive technologies and architectures of control, see the Design with Intent blog from Virtualpolitik friend Dan Lockton.)

In answering questions, Lupton reiterated that design literacy had to be built into general education to encourage people to think about how to contribute to public sphere with rhetorics that are "verbal and visual and thoroughly digital." Lev Manovich noted that there were certain assumptions about class and status in minimalism and white space that raised "social obligations," and Anne Burdick talked about the difference between little “d” design vs. Big “D” design and taste regimes, as Lupton talked about how as director of the Humanities Core Course at UC Irvine, they taught students to understand the Bauhaus as a socialist movement, albeit one with a continuing relationship to vernacular design. The last word was had by Lorraine Wild, who asked about the domestic worker's new signage, "Does she want to be a heavy metal cleaning lady or is she only cleaning churches?" The interventionist aesthetic involved in taking over the "implied expression in typography" by another party was to Wild questionable at best on Cardon Copy's part.

Then Benjamin Bratton gave a remarkable talk "On the Design and Designation of Cosmoppolitics: Geoscapes, Coogle Caliphate, Mumbai" about the "modern ethos of disclosure, transparency, and enlightenment" and the "emergence of information visualization as an adaptation to data abundance" as the Google suite of mapping and geospatial visualization tools played such a central role in the attacks by terrorists on Mumbai. He questioned the "rationalized images of the world" of "cosmograms and cosmomedia" and the status of Kant’s central human universals and his vision of a globalizing governance and the conditions of cogmopolitan assemblage might be understood in the environment of digitally enabled jihad. The talk was punctuated with gorgeous slides that included the Legoland Capitol dome, time clocks in automated distribution points, older maps of the world, and soldiers in KISS make-up, along with an understanding of contemporary thinkers that ranged from Bruno Latour to Jean-Luc Nancy to Jacques Rancière.

One of the recurrange images in his talk showed various forms of geographies dictated by concentric rings that ranged from Robert Smithson's geoscape to late medieval visions of the world with Jerusalem at the center. He noted how the "fragile pairing of geography and law: and "territory and projection" could be seen in th terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the militarism of the urban landscape of the city. When cities lose ability to triage conflict, he argued, terrorist incursions that serve as an "attack on habits and inhabitants" complicate questions about how a global city with mobile mapping functions. He observed that the terrorists used Google earth and maps, along with cell phones and sim cards, to exploit "situational awarenss." He connected their geospatial understandings with Photoshopped images that "plant the flag of Islam in Washington, Tel Aviv."

For Bratton, this was a "designed moment" of "righteous sacred geography." Thus at a design conference, he wanted to bring in difficult questions about terrorist acts, because it was "iimportant to engage at the register of design." For the attackers, the geography of the partition of Kasmir necessitated another kind of geoscape as they participated in a "shifting landscape of shifting landscapes" that was "not an empty arrangement but conceptual assemblage" that was "secular and geographic."

Bratton asserted that the "public sphere is spherical only to the extent that it lacks topological perspective" and that these "armed smart mobs" represented "irregular and asymmetrical" combat, as "armed Versace knock-off wearing tourists" perpetrating actions that were more like an amok than a Klauswitzian contest of rational equals. In tracing the "trail of geographic events, Bratton noted that the news agencies also used Google Earth and that the very software problematizes certain aspects of the "open, objective, materialist, dialogic" Friedman-esque view of the world.

Perhaps Bratton's most contentious assertion was that jihadist Islam and the "representation of the earth as circle . . . onto and into which history might work" is not entirely alien to Google itself if this "remapping of the Caliphate" could be applied to the products and practices perpetuated by the Mountain View, California company in which "our modernity is always already also theirs." In thinking about a "politico theological urban design practice" and the "spatial imaginaries of Jihad and Google" contained in "computational geospace" involving both sub and super state agents, Bratton argued that it was "less about what is seen than what is not seen," as Google effects its transnational ends. As evidence he pointed to the "territorial and naval incursion" represented by the plan for floating Google data centers that harness tidal and wind energy, along with cooling the cooling powers of the sea, which create uncharted possibilities for the jurisdictional and legal control of data as the territory of the cloud enters international waters. (Another illustration of his thesis was offered in a photo of a Sun data center in a shipping container.)

Bratton argued that digital humanists must engage with the "political information built into hardware" that "no law passed can undo," if it involves the polity of an Intel chip. For him, it was a question of "accidental technologies and political design" in which there was "design for the effect and affect" and a codependence of "functioning infrastructure and decorative camouflage" in the cameras and cross signals that were now part of the integrated posture of the global city. The monopoly on legitimate violence and the monopoly of legitimate citizenship once held by the state was being challenged by Google, in that Bratton could imagine a "Google citizenship" built on rational actor microeconomics. He closed by quoting Paul Virilio and offering a reminder that just as technologies create accidents, accidents create technologies.

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Blogger Lupton said...

Thanks for your insightful account of an amazing day.

8:11 PM  

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