Saturday, July 31, 2010

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] hybrid city as interface

Dear all,

I would like to forward a message by Marcos Novak's to the discussion



From: marcos
Date: July 30, 2010 4:06:57 PM PDT
Subject: Re: [Yasmin_discussions] hybrid city as interface

Hello all,

I've been following the various Yasmin discussions with fascination for some time now. Congratulations to everyone for making this one of the most informed, thoughtful, and intriguing fora for discussions of art and new media. Alas, though I've been tempted to jump in several times, I've just been too busy to do so. This time, though, between the topic and season, I can't resist. Here goes:


The topic of the "hybrid city" is timely and important. Many projects and events have been taking place around the world, indicating a renewed interest in the city. This time around, the terms seem to have changed -- these aren't the statistically-driven but morphologically bland urban planning discussions of old ("old" doesn't have to be that old, these days -- a recent Venice Biennale of Architecture took on the theme of the city from a statistical vantage point and tried to let the numbers and graphs speak for themselves. They didn't.) The discussions today are energized and activated by the overlay of several issues that carry a new urgency: locative media and technologies, social networking, the-city-as-display-and-interface, sustainability and ecological awareness, globalization, and also a new sense of empowerment to affect the design of cities via algorithmic design, computer controlled fabrication, new materials, and the addition of increasing "intelligence," both local and remote, to what was previously inert form. Of course, one can't have new cities without new citizens, so one of the major factors is the coming of age of a new population that has assumed ubiquitous connectivity and computation from birth. The rise of this group has meant that the inertia of resistance that characterized much of the parent generation is rapidly being replaced by a dizzying forward momentum by the offspring generation.

These and other topics have spurred various voices to try to articulate the new conditions of the city. Indeed, acting across Los Angeles and Vienna, the MAK Center, and, in particular, the MAK UFI (Urban Future Initiative), has just published a book of new "Urban Future Manifestos."

For this book, Peter Noever invited numerous voices around the world to each contribute a manifesto. I am one of the authors called upon to write such a manifesto. It was quite a challenge to write a manifesto in the 21st century, but, in the end, it was a clarifying and refreshing exercise. I wish I could share it with this group, but, due to the publication agreement, I can't make the full text available to the discussion right away (but may be able to do so soon, if there is interest). In the meantime, I can direct your attention to the book (which, in any case, contains many more manifestos pertinent to this discussion!). I've included some additional information about the book below.


Now, to the them of "hybrid" and the hope for converging upon a definition. I would argue that perhaps a definition might only close down an argument that is better left open. The specific term "hybrid" actually contains hints to the problem I am drawing attention to. A "hybrid" is a creature that is the offspring of two related but separate species (which is what appeals to all of us in this discussion) but, which, critically, is unable to reproduce further on its own. Hybrids are sterile, most often. This morning, in the news, there was word of a new "zedonk" being born in captivity at the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve in Dahlonega, Georgia. The "zedonk" is a hybrid of a zebra and a donkey. It is also known as a "zonkey" or, more to the point, a "zebra mule." Mules of various kinds cannot reproduce. For all their utility to humans, we must bring together horses and donkeys to make them. Other hybrids like "ligers" and "tions" suffer the same fate.

A "hybrid city" thus suggests that some combinations may be attractive and useful and yet not sustainable (and I don't just mean this in terms of energy or materials, I mean it culturally and civilizationally) -- and, since we are speaking of living things -- unable to continue to evolve. What would be preferable, I think, is not to settle on a term, but to try to understand what principles might be necessary to restore and provide for richness and ever-growing diversity. In my own discourse of "transvergence," I focus on "speciation" -- not the making of hybrids between species, but the construction of ecologies within which genuine, stable, and ever-evolving new species can proliferate.

This isn't just a semantic quibble or a fussiness about this word or that. The difference is real and structural, and hinges on the specific and real construction of openness. To give a single example that can ground that I mean this technically, let me add this: we all know about genetic algorithms by now. A genetic algorithm may evolve by mutating its own genes, but, unless it actually has the ability to extend its own genome (that is to say, modify and extend the set of genes whose values are able to mutate), it can't produce anything but variations of the same kind -- it can never produce new kinds, or new species. A closed genome is an industrial-age artifact, focused on optimization. What is needed is a post-industrial construct able to alter itself as it proliferates.

Not fixating on a closed hybridity, and instead focusing on the provision of conditions and flexible, mutating structures that ensured the evolution of new species of urbanism and urban life would be a start, but would not be the all that we could strive for. Another problem remains.


The next issue, I think, has to do with how we still exist within structures and value systems that can produce variety without producing difference, and, especially positive difference, by multiple definitions. Guy Debord pointed this out in "The Society Of The Spectacle," and, as far as I can tell, we have yet to extricate ourselves from that maze.Whether we have 500 channels of unwatchable television or a trillion documents online does not matter if everything is motivated by an indifference to quality, and a subjugation of every effort at qualitative assessment to a simple-minded and perceptually and intellectually impoverished logic of mere counting -- more is better, and that's that. To put it plainly -- it is not that we cannot build better cities -- it is that we don't have the will to, or, to strike more deeply, the value system for. Cities are mirrors, and we already have the cities that are the perfect reflections of our collective values. If we wish to change them, we need to address the value systems by which we make urban decisions. Until we do, we will get technological advances that look like visionary avant-garde propositions until they arrive, but that will be commodified into glorified high-technology marketing delivery mechanisms in lived fact -- "cool" for a few minutes (generously), and then abrasive and tiresome, not really pleasant to live in, and next to impossible to thrive in.

The question then shifts to a multi-headed problem: how to provide a constructive critique of our global culture and its values, how to assert positive and constructive alternatives, and how to literally structure our poetic and technological efforts to realize those alternatives. The problem I find the most vexing is the problem of values. In our community and on this forum, we are all dedicated to imagining and designing alternatives -- but the real brick wall is not our ability to imagine and design in careful and exquisite detail what would be good and beautiful -- it is to emplace our proposals in a culture that does not even seem to know how to value them, let alone desire them and support them, even if the might appear to cost more (though cost is not the real issue, quality is).

I love Venezia and have been there every year for over a decade, and, in parallel, I've lived for over a decade in Venice, California. The relation between the two cities is instructive. Venice, California is four times bigger than the original, but, though interesting, nowhere near as rich in wonder as La Serenissima. One is a human treasure. The other is pleasant beach-town with an unusual origin. Venice, California started off as an effort to create a Venice-of-America, not from any organic will of its citizens, but as a business proposition. Still, it was a pretty imaginative effort. Abbot Kinney, the developer who created it, managed to keep it going, in spite of curiously correlated pressure to build oil-wells and arson, until his death, whereupon it was handed over to the City of Los Angeles, which promptly filled in and paved the inconvenient canals, beauty (or, at least, character) be damned.

Even where a tangible effort was made to build a timidly unusual city, a hybrid of America and Venezia, and even with a strong and clear precedent in mind, the value system of the society it was built within and for could not support what was offered. Venice-of-America was not culturally sustainable because people simply did not care enough to keep it going. The original Venetians had lesser technology but stronger urban values, and they consciously named their city after Venus, goddess of beauty, and then made every effort to make it beautiful. There are places in Venezia where five bridges (almost) intersect. One would have been enough, but five, in counterpoint, are more beautiful, and, though more costly then as now, those people chose beauty. All we seem to know to do now is consume beauty, as tourists, not make it, at least at the level of urban will and the public realm. Until we address this, we will do the same with technology, and the hybrid city will not be what we really wish it to be.


Interface? To what? From what? From whom? Toward whom? Of what sort of benefit? Of benefit to whom?


The questions multiply from here. I can't even begin to outline them in this response. My manifesto offers suggestions and directions, but it is best to leave the questions hanging, and, hopefully, to have many of us engage them. The problem of the city is the problem of "us" -- of how we construct ourselves as a community and a public and how we come to value and build the public good. It is the "demos" in democracy. In these troubled times, it may be the most important question of all.


p.s. Some more information about Urban Future Manifestos"

> Urban Future Manifestos calls upon leading creative thinkers to address urgent questions about the future of the contemporary city. Contributing architects, artists, designers, and urban scholars from around the globe consider the city from a variety of positions and posit their unique and inspiring visions. Urban Future Manifestos was produced by the MAK Urban Future Initiative (UFI), which was founded to generate concepts for the urban future by stimulating international dialogue.
> Urban Future Manifestos includes texts by UFI fellows Marco Kusumawijaya, Urban Think Tank, Ismail Farouk, Xiangning Li, Alexia Leon, Pages (Babak Afrassiabi and Nasrin Tabatabai), and Alaa Khaled and Salwa Rashad are featured. Other contributors include Beatriz Colomina, Teddy Cruz, Dana Cuff, Keller Easterling, Gregor Eichinger, Nnamdi Elleh, ATOPIA: Jane Harrison and David Turnbull, Zvi Hecker, Gustaff Harriman Iskander, Doung Anwar Jahangeer, Bernard Khoury, Norman Klein, Herbert Lachmayer, Rick Lowe, Mehret Mandefro, Marcos Novak, Edgar Pieterse, Travis Price, Robert Ransick, Christian Reder, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, Saskia Sassen, Felicity Scott, AbdouMaliq Simone, Edward Soja, Michael Sorkin, Jonathan Tel, Tezozomoc, Ai Wei Wei, Eyal Weizman, Lebbeus Woods. Graphic design by Axel Prichard-Schmitzberger.



Marcos Novak, Professor
Director, transLAB

University of California, Santa Barbara
MAT: Media Art and Technology Program
CNSI: California NanoSystems Institute
Art: Department of Art


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