I’ve been musing again on a life-long problem: why doesn’t everyone react with the same alarm to environmental change as I do? Why won’t everyone (and not just isolated if amazing heroes like the striking Swedish school girl) demand that those with power use it to stop the Eart from broiling?

Too Late shaded 2018

As ever, I’ve looked for clues in literature.

I particularly enjoyed a volume on Economic Science Fictions edited by Goldsmiths-based William Davies (2018) and a short book cited therein, by Peter Frase called Four Futures from 2016. I also looked at David Pilling’s journalistic Growth Delusion, and finished going through a special issue of Ephemera Journal on Degrowth from 2017.

I’ve also been reflecting the readings against the freakishly hot summer.

I started to write this post, laptop on lap, from a small island in the Baltic. I sat not uncomfortably on the end of our jetty enjoying the best of a weirdly warm breeze.

Undoubtedly the most significant inspiration for my becoming an environmental anthropologist has been that place. Like many Helsinki kids, I was transported each year to be “close to nature” away from school and city distractions. A few weeks in a comfortable if simply equipped cabin with water to swim and fish in and rocks and woods to run around in.

verkkoja laskemassa july2018

Drinking-water still has to be carried there. Waste is composted or combusted or it gets carted back to the mainland. Here is a perfect spot for learning about environmental change: annual fluctuations in seaweed and algae express the state of the Baltic. Not good.

Over the years it’s been wonderful watching sunsets. Gradually I’ve learned to listen to birds and look out for fish, elk, deer, and lately, ticks. But the small changes have been incremental and often for the worse.

This year for the first time, I ended up doing what I could to keep the cabin cool. (See the photo above, top).

I also cut reeds for the first time. Although good for cleaning impurities from the water, they were also threatening to suffocate a lagoon. People have been enjoying warm swimming there since the late 1950s and no doubt before. A “first world” loss and not THAT unpleasant a job. But not an insignificant thing in terms of ecological health.

Nice to escape into books. What was a pleasure about my summer reading was that the texts spell out confident versions of environmentalism. They have no truck with so-called climate sceptics, and they are happy to muddle along in a broad-brush cognitive space in which events out there in the world demand radical responses.

Now, as fellow anthropologist Hannah Knox argues so lucidly, we can’t be sure the heatwaves were “caused” by carbon emissions. But we can be pretty sure that what we think of as normal and even desirable is paving the way to climate chaos. If economic growth continues as the default aspiration through which we try to maintain something like social cohesion, disasters small and large, of many kinds, are sure to come, and quite soon at that.

july-2018-heat-map.pngThat all sounds a bit vague. So did the rather alarming heat maps that peppered the media this year. But then progress and economic growth are really extraordinarily vague co-ordianates by which to order social life too.

So, those books. They make vague but strong claims about how we, the primary beneficiaries of global capitalism, have produced this mess.

It was rewarding to read about what we know has happened and what kinds of responses are already being undertaken. These were more than could-be and should-be sustainability talk of the kind my friend Cindy Kohtala has warned students about. (Although there was inevitably a little of that too.)

Particularly Davies’ edited volume stridently turns on its head the economic thought I’ve always felt surrounded and suffocated by. The volume explores imagined worlds from literature, film and planning, whose notions of economics highly consequential and yet also fantasies. Embarrassing perhaps, but I had no idea so much science fiction, and “cli-fi”, was out there, dedicated to questioning progress, innovation, economic growth and other Europe-centred modern virtues!

There is still a problem though. For all that the zeitgeist encourages talk of the harms created by devotion to economic growth, to mention growth scepticism still courts ridicule or disapproval. Somehow it just isn’t polite to talk about climate change.

What is and isn’t polite is of course the stuff of anthropology. In all societies there are some things that are considered too dirty or shaming or dangerous to talk about. And usually the most powerful people are able to ignore them or pretend they don’t apply to them.

Which links climate and other environmental crises to the not-so-thorny problem of whether or not royalty goes to the toilet.

What a depressing thought, that link.

Making it does, I suppose, reinforce my belief in the importance of environmental anthropology. I see few signs of it getting much support or authority, but perhaps this is about to shift. The zeitgeist and those temperatures, after all. Of course they go to the toilet.

p.s. This poster by Finnish graphic designer Kyösti Varis riffed on a similar theme back in 1970. “The ball is in our hands” it says.

Varis Pallo on nyt

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I recently wrote a review, in Finnish, of a book with an intriguing looking take on urban futures as re-industrialised. As I tend to do, I first wrote it in English, so here is the draft.

Urban Re-Industrialization, Krzysztof Nawratek, editor. punctum books, e-book. 2017

This intriguing volume of short texts (frustratingly short mostly) argues for the creation of more production-oriented or industrial rather than consumption-led spaces in urban areas. In his introduction, the editor Krzysztof Nawratek promises thinking to break neoliberal path-dependencies that have long enfeebled cities. The volume in fact contains some great deconstructions of the double-speak that offers improvement while instituting ever more exploitative systems of supervision and control deep into the social and technical systems underpinning ordinary life. (I particularly recommend Chapter 1 by Michael Edwards & Myfanwy Taylor). Indeed, the analyses and proposals put forward in the book are tantalizing – at times.

As a whole the book, however, is a strange ensemble. It offers sharp and well researched analysis on the one hand and surprisingly vacuous rhetoric from writers promoting supposedly “alternative” urbanism, on the other.

What is even more odd is that the critical analyses come first, followed  by several texts that these would seem to be perfectly poised to debunk. There is quite a lot there, of what, in his (critical) contribution to the volume, Jeffrey T. Kruth dubs the “re-invention of fads, ideas, technology and marketing strategies” related to “cappuccino culture”.

Arising out of teaching and two mini-conferences, Urban Re-Industrialization makes a plea for something more real and more just than the “cappuccino city”. In any case, argues Nawratek very reasonably, that was built on a fantasy of creative talent and spurred on by magical thinking that “doesn’t bother to ask questions about where the middle classes (or indeed their money) are coming from”.

Unfortunately, however, cappuccino culture remains promoted and often publicly supported, and, like gentrification, it too is  decried and promoted by the same actors. (At least this is the case in my home town of Helsinki, and my former home, London.)

But the volume’s practice-based texts aim for a “more just and more democratic” society (don’t we all?) by reproducing naïve rhetoric about, for instance, the possibilities of the Third Industrial Revolution of digital manufacturing and the personalized, customized, craft-based and always somehow environmentally benign consumer items it heralds. Even more irritatingly, sometimes they echo the biggest developers and construction firms, by using a vaguely declamatory future tense – “these developments will…” and asserting equally vaguely that the changes will have important implications for our cities and homes. We also hear of the attractions of a fuller sensory experience to be gained once work is returned from grim industrial zones on the edge of town into the hubbub of everyday life. Besides being platitudinous, such prose comes close to justifying the circus of vanity projects in arts and culture that still try to target struggling municipal governments with their promises of “global” visibility and streams of money-spending tourists.

Not, I should add, that any of the chapters would do anything so ghastly as promote the creation of staged spaces of consumer safety. And its contributions make an often compelling case for reinserting productive rather than consumptive functions back into urban areas, for stopping the deadly sanitizing of urban culture, in short.

Much of the book argues for some serious economic and institutional reorganization as well as rethinking. It is after all incredibly difficult if not impossible in public governance to prevent – and not just pretend to disapprove of – the perverse and enfeebling impacts of land speculation and wealth accumulation based on rent and transfers of wealth from public to private hands.

A strange mix of texts indeed, perhaps some of them will be developed further and published in more thorough treatments of a truly problematic contemporary condition!

 

A month or so ago, I had the pleasure of “delegating” a teaching slot in my environmental anthropology course to Tim Ingold. He was keynote speaker at the Aalto University’s Art of Research Conference 2017, so I required my students to show up to that.

In a talk that substantially reflected his 2016 autobiographical paper, ‘From science to art and back again’, in the online journal ANUAC, he certainly inspired them.

Around the same time I was asked to prepare some comments on a paper, a version of which will appear in Suomen Antropologi, on “urban hitchhiking”. A method for engaging with strangers that was born of artistic practices, urban hitchhiking was presented at the conference by the authors Tuuli Malla, Anna Kholina and Lauri Jäntti. I was happy to write a comment on the paper, particularly since back in April 2017 I had tried out urban hitchhiking at the Finnish Urban Studies Days (conference).

This description is from their paper:

Take a sign that says “May I walk with you for a while? Place yourself along a pedestrian route. Stand somewhere along that path, raise your thumb and make eye contact with people who are passing. Wait fairly passively, looking for eye contact until someone approaches you. Let the journey begin. Often the person who is giving you a lift will ask what this is about. You may answer as you like.
This is experimental, an intervention into the course of everyday urban life whose results can be fun, intriguing and unanticipated.

Walking is now part of many an ethnographer’s toolkit. Some urban walks I have done for seemingly unrelated reasons in hindsight feel like they were ethnographic exercises. Such as this Narratiimi-walk to Helsinki’s Kruunuvuorenranta, pre-development, last year.IMG_6184 (1)

That Malla’s and Jäntti’s hitchhiking exercises were productive is, by contrast, not in question. They had an exhibition at the Helsinki Art Museum. Who know where they will go with their innovation!

Such unorthodox research methods need not be an end in themselves. As a way to open up the researcher to the city in all its fullness and unpredictability, urban hitchhiking has analytical and critical potential, though exactly how, remains to be fleshed out. Then again, it has value whether or not it’s turned to scholarly use. I hope to adapt it for teaching quite soon.

Malla and Jäntti are artists. They listen and observe carefully. Kholina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Design at Aalto and seems to do the same. Their joint exercise again raised the question about producing, documenting and authorizing knowledge, and about who does these things – scholars, professionals or so-called lay-people.

These things have always been part of my own research. Much of it has involved working with well-educated environmental activists, whose expertise and viewpoints, though epistemologically defensible by any criteria, have often been side-lined, suppressed and even ridiculed as utopian.

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Not so long ago, even those, like the active citizens that set up London’s Glengall Wharf Garden (above), were no doubt thought of like that.

As a social scientist, I have often interrupted the lives of middle-class environmentalists in seeking research material. It’s meant huge overlaps in my analysis and their analysis of any situation. When anthropology still equalled the study of exotic peoples, this kind of “horizontal” relationship with one’s ethnographic interlocutors used to be noteworthy.

These days we are more likely to see such situations as ordinary, even as imperatives to “experiment” with and redistribute the work of research. Returning to urban hitchhiking, to encourage reciprocity and collaboration (if not equivalence) between academic and non-academic questioning, is no longer gimmicky.

As my former colleague Les Back insists, experimenting with the aim of paying closer attention, describing more carefully and still applying critical judgement, is epistemologically as well as ethically the most defensible kind of social research. Exploring multiple perspectives with empathy as well as with the analytical and documentary resources available to academics, is what academics should do. If others can join in and help the process, so much the better, I think.

Anyway, I expect that what is today called experimental or unorthodox will one day be quite standard. Their popularity may also reflect a feeling that the very point of research practice is being rethought. No longer the purview of professional researchers alone, perhaps social research isn’t even aimed any more at creating new knowledge. And certainly I don’t think it is motivated by a desire to help manage unwieldy yet high-profile (and high-stakes) contemporary collectives like cities!

I’ll end on cities and their management. As lovely as it would be to turn back the clock and wish away talk of the “smart city” (brilliantly deconstructed here) or even “urban policy”, the incontrovertible fact is that just coping with cities of the scale and scope we have today, requries massive inputs of intellectual, esoteric and technical power. And it requires critical, academic, reflection to discern work out how to adapt global “development” fads to local conditions or, indeed, to reject them.

If exercises such as urban hitchhiking were to be promoted as part of urban research, it could have interesting effects. In a fit of optimism, I think it could benefit Helsinki.

Could it not be used to educate our planning professionals about the famous social bubbles that worry us all so much? Or about what it feels like to walk in over-designed or over-commercialised parts of the city? Like past this illuminated monstrosity that is currently taking up 1/3 of the wall of the Music Centre (which, BTW, I would prefer to see called the Music Building)?

Black WEek on musiikkitalo 2017

In fact, I suggest Helsinki planners should go urban hitchhiking as much as they can during Helsinki’s darkest months (there are still a couple left!) I recommend that they loiter with intent in the vicinity of these vast advertising surfaces.

Sources

Back, Les (2007) The Art of Listening, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Berglund E (1998)  Knowing Nature, Knowing Science: An ethnography of local environmental activism. White Horse Press.

Berglund, E. (2017) ‘Steering clear of politics: local virtues in Helsinki’s design activism’, Journal of Political Ecology Vol.24, 566 – 580.

Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.) (1986) Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: California University Press.

Corsin Jimenez A (2013) An anthropological trompe l’oeil for a common world: An essay on the economy of knowledge. Berghahn.

Estalella, A. & Criado, T.S. (Eds.) (2018) Experimental Collaborations: Ethnography through Fieldwork Devices. Oxford: Berghahn.

Marcus GE (2016) Jostling Ethnography Between Design and Participatory Art Practices, and the Collaborative Relations It Engenders, in Smith RC, KT Vangkilde, MG Kjaersgaard, T Otto,  J Halse, T Binder (eds) 2016 Design Anthropological Futures, London & New York: Bloomsbury: 105-119.

 

 

It’s typical on return from intense fieldwork to find writing about it to be impossible. What I feel is a little similar. And yet four full days later, I still want to make sense, to document, to hold on to the excitement, of last week at the Jardim Botânico Tropical, Lisbon.

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This was the 1st workshop organized by the EASA network #Colleex, on Ethnographic Experimentation. Fieldwork Devices and Companions.

Instead of extended discursiveness then, I will make a few notes and share some of the wonderful photos taken by Vitor Barros, one of the members of Lisbon’s Ebanocollective, whose art is supported by ethnographic research and who partnered with #Colleex in organizing the event.

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With Ebano’s site-specific work, come also new collectives and thinking. New ways to attend to what makes knowledge – like the fragile places we inhabit. The library space, for instance, where papers were presented, with its colonial and other ghosts, and where Francesca da Luca (centre), also of Ebano, introduced proceedings on the first day – no longer quite in character as a Cleenik physician to ethnographically disordered patients… hence our white coats.

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New collectives and new thinking also came out of the workshop programme and all that spilled out of it. There were five sessions of pre-circulated papers and myriad less conventional formats and audiovisual presentations.

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Of these, there will be more. Fellow network-convenor, anthropologist and film-maker Anna Ramella (above) and her local support, shot I-don’t-know-how-much footage. Thank you to them all!

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Here is a picture of one format in process. It was initiated by a fellow design-department-associated anthropologist Rachel Harkness (left in the photo). She got Marta Morgade Salgado, me, Nadine Wanono and Camille Sineau (and others), to do something as difficult as it was ultimately pleasurable: a collective act, of which I am sure we will hear more in due course.

In this picture, all looks easy and controlled. Yet it was not a smooth operation for upwards of seventy people to come together on a shoestring budget and minimal institutional infrastructure. Catering solutions were devised, tickets designed, email instructions collectively drafted, sent and resent, black-out fabrics purchased and fixed to recalcitrant window frames …

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The day before, in the sweltering July heat, anything that was ready-to-hand was used to prepare the dilapidated buildings of this space of colonial histories for #colleex.

The local organizers, Francesca de Luca, Chiara Pussetti, Vitor Barros and Giorgio Gristina have, I hope, been able to get some serious rest. I feel I cannot thank them enough!

My sincere gratitude also to the two initiators of #Colleex Tomás Sanchez Criado (below) and Adolfo Estalella. They created it last year as an EASA network.

They identified an urgent issue in the discipline: a lack of serious attention to what is happening to knowledge practices in relation to ethnography particularly. After all, like all types of expertise, anthropology is evolving in our (epistemologically) troubling new times towards new norms and new forms.

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To quote from the #Colleex manifesto:

The network is organized as a collaboratory whose main agenda is to foster practical explorations alongside theoretical debates on what we call ethnographic experimentation.

One of many things to cherish about the collaboratory is its inclusive atmosphere combined with the intellectual ambition. That it works so well is substantially thanks to Adolfo’s care with the recipe (below, contributing at a paper session).

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Finally, Andrea Gaspar, I guess what I want to be writing is an epistemic love letter. But the workshop reminded me that caution is called for in approaching matters of the heart. Neither ethnography nor anthropologists should be romanticized let alone mythologized. And not fixed into words chosen too quickly. More later.

A todos muito obrigada!

 

I’ve been keeping busy with all sorts of things that I have been thinking would be worth sharing, but in the absence of time to write coherently about these things, I’m sharing a blog post that I wrote for the Arts in the Environment Symposium to be held in Helsinki at the end of the summer.

The symposium will be held on Vartiosaari island, a place cherished by all who know it. It is, however facing the state-sponsored vandalism misleadingly known as “urban development”. We could more honestly call the process a legalised form of theft that encloses shared heritage – like some epic views – for the enjoyment of the few. My post begins below this picture, taken in winter 2016. Other images of the island are from one of my first visits in 2014. More can be found in an earlier post here.

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To consider art and the environment I would start with cities. The more they are pressured to grow, the more every environment beyond them is also put under pressure. The world as a whole is now required to service cities, providing them with everything they cannot provide for themselves. That means most things, from construction materials and food to landfill. It is also breathing space to ‘get away from it all’, whether this be a golf course or a supposedly pristine wilderness. And, as some would have it, cities need to be constantly pumped up with ‘talent’.

And the more cities grow, the more we all need art.

I am not quite sure how to define ‘art’ but my own most exquisite moments of gratitude for life are bound up with it. An encounter with art can produce a similar delight to what I feel sometimes towards the elements – the earth, air, fire, water and their descendants. I say descendants because history has technologized them. Earth, air, fire and water are now mixed with the artefacts of culture, particularly of the culture I call my own, that of the urban, colonially created, commodity-intensive global North.

Towns and cities are human technological creations too. I am not sure, though, whether cities can properly be considered art, or indeed, if everyone agrees with me that cities are, for most people today, our environment.

Over the centuries though, many cities have been experienced much like as art might have been, not just as beautiful or stylish, but as entire worlds that speak to us. Some cities, like uninhabited landscapes, have more magic than others, but most places reward both tourists and locals who explore or just pay attention to them.

As someone who organizes occasional urban walks, I know how some people truly delight in (re)discovering familiar surroundings with others and take pleasure in discovering and creating new meanings through this shared activity. Like field-scientists fascinated by the workings of the environment, more and more urban dwellers are turning to different forms of local exploration. Perhaps they are intrigued by what anthropologist Tim Ingold has recently called “the sheer richness and complexity of a world which human beings have irrevocably altered through their activities and yet in which they are puny by comparison to the forces they have unleashed” (Ingold 2016: 19).

The urban environment in Helsinki is, obviously, unique. I say obviously, because so far cities pretty much are unique, though that is changing. Helsinki has been incredibly lucky to have been able to develop both a distinctive architectural style and an identity so seamlessly tied to its location.

We know its trees are reducing in number, but only a handful of people would be able to say by how much. The waterfront is comparatively more researched. Depending on the season, on who is measuring, how and for what, Helsinki currently has near about 100km of it, with more stretching out both East and West. IMG_2256

And in Vartiosaari it has an irreplaceable landscape where cultural and natural have colluded over time to produce an environment with clearly paradisiac qualities within city limits.

It’s not just that Helsinki seems somehow ‘close to nature’. Architects, designers, musicians, artists and many other visitors from around the world have long appreciated Helsinki for its special built environment, as architectural critic and friend of Helsinki Jonathan Glancey so movingly writes (2015). Like no other city, it has pushed itself up and out from the local granite to become an original and above all environmentally well adapted city. Its buildings have been mainly low-rise, which makes the best of sparse sunlight and tempers harsh winds from the sea, and it still has a rather pleasing mix of old and new, of the engineered and the organic.

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Unfortunately it cannot be taken for granted that these qualities will be enhanced into the future. Even in Helsinki landscapes are at risk of becoming less local, less easy to cherish, less worth exploring. As in so many cities in Helsinki there is a housing crisis, but arguably the more significant pressure to build comes from the city administration wanting to make the city more ‘competitive’, a vague term that seems to favor wealthy taxpayers and tourists. By comparison, existing strategies for nature conservation and dealing with climate change tend to get de-emphasized. And as local and global interests jostle for space in these situations, there can be a strong feeling that democracy is being hollowed out.

In this context someone with an interest in sustainable urban development like myself is going to have to start paying attention to art.

On first reflection, I think of two opposing ways in which the term ‘art’ could be involved in directing the course of events and shape of the future. I might think of the proliferation of what used to be called ‘artist’s’ renderings’ or pretty pictures of the future city. The production of such imagery has intensified in the last two or three decades though it is a very old practice. After all, the seductions of the drawn image were important in persuading Renaissance princes just as they are necessary to urban politics today. Ridiculous computer-generated visuals of utopian future cityscapes are now peddled around the globe in efforts to sell an almost identical and equally fantastical product commonly but less and less accurately called ‘city’.

Though of course, to use the term ‘artist’s renderings’ is absurd. Actually one increasingly hears more apt names for these creations, like ‘property porn’ or even ‘horrenderings’, as urban scholar Geci Karuri-Sebina has suggested.

Looking for a more contemporary and hopeful role for art, I am drawn to its capacity for exploration, for questioning, for exploding simplified binaries and false choices. As art activism or ‘artivism’ art combines with all manner of locally committed as well as spatially mobile people to lavish both attention and care on the environment. Often it awakens political instincts, whether quietly or more brashly and rudely. Artivism alerts us to the necessity of friction in life in general, wary of commercially driven dreams of happiness and designed well-being.

In fact maybe it isn’t artivism as an overtly political standpoint that achieves these necessary outcomes, but art in general. From the better funded performing arts to conceptual works in and out of gallery spaces, and to the tiniest community initiatives and street art, what nurtures our humanity – common or not – in ways that few other things do, is the care and the collective imagining that flows through artistic practice.

Now retired, with a distinguished career behind him but wielding ever more influence across art, design and architecture as well as the social sciences, Tim Ingold whom I quoted above also raises art above his earlier passion, science. Art is also more ecological now, he suggests. Meanwhile science, Ingold worries, is seduced by innovation and by numbers and is anyway in the hands of a global scientific elite in collusion with corporate power. In such a context we need art more than ever.

Indeed we do. I wonder, however, if with art we might also destabilize the seemingly hard boundary between art and science itself. Building on that virtue that Ingold values so highly, of curiosity, it might be possible yet to care and imagine collectively among the scientists too, maybe even the economists (who knows?). Like him, however, I’m looking more and more to art.

Glancey, Jonathan. 2015. ‘Here and nowhere else’, in E. Berglund and C. Kohtala (eds) Changing Helsinki? 11 Views on a City Unfolding, Helsinki: Nemo, pp. 124-131.

Ingold, Tim. 2016. ‘From science to art and back again: The pendulum of an anthropologist’,   ANUAC. VOL . 5, N ° 1, GIUGNO  2016: 5-23.

Be good to Helsinki 2010-ish

“Be good to Helsinki”

So, I learned a new skill today. It is called urban hitchhiking. Find out more about this excellent pursuit via this Facebook page from last year. And harken to possible encounters with it anon.

Even before hearing the papers at the Urban Studies Days in Helsinki, I was  primed for thinking about walking. Spring is, or should be, the season for walking. Through most of history, cities grew up to accommodate the needs and express the meaning of people on foot.

Masses of people on foot have made history in the world’s towns and cities, a phenomenon that is beginning to irritate those people for whom political protest has become more and more necessary and therefore ordinary in recent months.

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Cities also grew up to be diverse and full of surprises.

This morning’s plenary speaker, Geci Karuri-Sebina, reminded us about that.

She also encouraged us urbanites to reconnect with earth.

It used to be so that dirt or earth didn’t so much come into one’s thoughts in relation to urban living. The rise and rise of urban gardening has changed that, for good I hope. Still, I was startled by her invitation for us to think about how many times a day, a week, we get into contact with earth, with dirt, in our city lives. Not often, unless you are very active in a community or other garden, I’d guess.

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This picture from London (Glengall wharf), from last year, the idea of green shoots on this late and cold April day in Helsinki feels depressingly distant.

Karuri-Sebina also asked her audience this morning how often we come into contact with people who live very different lives from ours: people not in the same workplaces, not part of our family, not at the same schools. Those famous strangers that 20th-century urbanists celebrated.

She explained that as cities get bigger and denser, it seems they also get more disconnected socially, more “exclusive”. She mentioned a billboard advertising a luxury development in South Africa that actually explicitly said that it was aimed at the “fortunate few”!

After leaving the conference, I learned that thousands of farmers across Europe woke up this morning to see devastation wrought by unprecedented frosts. These things are all results of how modernity didn’t just forget in general (to recall Paul Connerton’s great read), but forgot the body specifically.

There’s no city, no life, in fact, that will survive on the augmented, enhanced, digitally rendered (“horrenderings” as Karuri-Sebina called them) that guide most planners’ urban visions and dreams.

Horrendering is indeed a great name for this property porn used to titillate Helsinki’s leadership over the possible future of Pasila a couple of years ago!

YIT.fi:images:businesspremises: etc Uusi Pasila Pohjoisesta

A city is not a computer, wrote Shannon Mattern in a great article recently, and nor is it code or software or informatics.

It’s possible that some places called cities (‘shopping city’, ‘movie city’, ‘eco-city’, ‘smart-city’) are largely made up of those things. Yet those are things that probably shouldn’t be confused with cities as such.

You’d know, because you’d not be able to inhabit them let alone get to them on foot. It would be escalators, elevators and a myriad contraptions you might call disconnectors. It all makes me think of George Clooney Up in the Air (and that was, I guess, the point of the film).

So in just over a week I’m going to reconnect with Helsinki by walking and talking, hopefully with lots of people I don’t know yet, many of whom will hopefully also have different working lives from mine.

Yes, Jane’s Walk season is upon us and there are 2 walks coming up in Helsinki.

The first in Vuosaari on Friday 5.5.2017 is kin to the series of walks we did with my Narratiimi partner Hanna Kaisa Vainio last summer. Among other things, those memorable forest-walks helped generate the almost-one-off newspaper, Skutsi Huutaa (Call of the Forest) now available at Vuotalo (Mosaiikkitori 2). The walk will explore the city spilling into the forest and the woods spilling into urban life. Everyone is welcome!

Skutsi huutaa kansi

Two days later, with experienced urban explorer Pauliina Jalonen we head off towards Lauttasaari, at 2pm from Sähinä (address Heikkiläntie 10), a hotbed of cultural and community activity with a great vegan cafe.

“Investigating integrated landscapes” could be one way of capturing what we’ve been thinking about doing. Though usually Jane’s Walks are led by residents, we do have an aim, namely to map out and sketch those things in the townscape that don’t usually merit our attention (more on that here via Facebook). We hope locals together with visitors can more easily pick out what to see.

I realise that all these variations on walking seem to be making it rather contemporary: walking-plus, a bit of value added. Hitchhiking, gardening, telling stories (narratiimi is a kind of narrating team), sketching.

We kind of captured this on the front page headline of our paper. We put a shocking story there more or less about “people found walking”.

Recalling Keruri-Sbeina’s talk at the conference, changing perspective is actually quite easy when you’re on foot. Just turn around for a moment.

Here are some notes on two books that I’ve recently reviewed, and one I simply enjoyed. They all relate to a growing preoccupation with futures. The plural is important, grand narratives scare me as much as simple stories do.

First off, Douglas Murphy has written an expert and entertaining book about past futures. Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecturewas published late 2015 by Verso. The publisher’s blurb captures its essence very well.

In the late 1960s the world was faced with impending disaster: the height of the Cold War, the end of oil and the decline of great cities throughout the world. Out of this crisis came a new generation that hoped to build a better future, influenced by visions of geodesic domes, walking cities and a meaningful connection with nature. In this highly readable work of cultural history, architect Douglas Murphy traces the lost archeology of the present day through the works of thinkers and designers such as Buckminster Fuller, the ecological pioneer Stewart Brand, the Archigram architects who envisioned the Plug-In City in the ’60s, as well as co-operatives in Vienna, communes in the Californian desert and protesters on the streets of Paris.

Now the 1960s came and went, but not entirely. World-improving activism is once again on the rise. Communes and geodesic domes, not to mention DIY-cultures of many hues, seem to be here to stay.

(This post is illustrated with examples from around Europe that I visited last summer.)

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Arts for the City, St Petersburg, Russia May 2016

 

Besides, it’s also the case that the breathless cybercapitalist lives that today pass for normal (even desirable) owe a considerable debt to “the long 1960s”. Like environmentalism, they too emerged out of the planetary imaginaries and practical experiments (combined in the world-wide web) also fostered by the techno-eco-utopian tinkerers and artists whose products and fortunes Murphy’s book recounts.

In those days the future was “pop” and not always quite respectable. Now it’s serious business.

The increasingly influential futures research industry is hopefully learning some lessons from the utopian dreams of the past. These are not just about plans that go awry or even about unforeseeable and unintended side effects. In studying past futures one learns that human beings are fundamentally collective, social and political animals, but for all that, highly unpredictable.

That’s where I’m hoping design anthropology’s contributions might be developed.

A little bit like 50 years ago, the world is out of joint and epistemic authority is in disarray. At the meeting points of the design disciplines and the empirical social sciences, that epistemic multiplicity is being studied and fostered.

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From Open Sources Circular Economy Days (OSCE), Helsinki, June 2016

Design Anthropological Futures, edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, 304 pp. PB 9781474280600 $29.95.

This volume has grown out of the work of The International Research Network the Design Anthropology, whose “concluding” conference I reported on earlier on this blog. The book is a collection of mostly short essays. These showcase but also problematize the methodological inventiveness of the research being done at the meeting point of designing for the future and and anthropology originally born of studying the present/past.

What makes it anthropological, is that it takes seriously the endless variety of ways in which past, present and future are conceptualised and managed by human beings. This sensibility has much in common with critical design. But arguably the so-called ethnographic record, produced in anthropology departments over the last century and a half, with its often mindbending challenges to industrial modernity’s common sense, informs its radically open conception of possible futures.

My main misgiving about the volume is that this sensibility is not more thoroughly spelled out. I doubt that the arguments as presented there would convince even a mildly sceptical reader. Still, perhaps this is because so many of the texts are rather short. Who knows what the editorial contraints were, but the authors might have benefited from more space to flesh out the empirical content, conceptual arguments, and unconventional uses of common, but polysemic terminology like ‘design’, ‘anthropological’ and ‘futures’.

To further irritate readers who might be uncomfortable with the vocabulary of critical design or with the methodological looseness of this kind of emerging social research, the prose is often hesitant and hugely self reflexive.

Having said all that, for readers already engaged in debates about creating futures of coexistence between humans and others, the texts here should provide helpful reference points for making sense of the need for and the development of design anthropology.

The other book I’ve been reviewing is:

Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, assemblies, atmospheres, edited by Anders Blok and  Ignacio Farias, and published by Routledge.

Cosmopolitics as a concept is likely to gain in popularity among scholars and activists engaged in designing less scary features. Developed above all by Isabelle Stengers, but also by Bruno Latour, the vocabulary and the attitude of cosmopolitics recognises and respects the existence of multiple, divergent worlds, but at the same time also recognises and respects the power of and need for theory.

In Urban Cosmopolitics the concept is invoked to address some of the shortcomings of assemblage-based urban research. Though related, cosmopolitics promises to get a firmer grasp of what is really at stake in the modes of coexistence emerging – being forced upon – the world today.

It is perhaps in cities, where dominant morphological and cultural projects are at their most intense, that future dreams and nightmares are most acutely felt. So, however one approaches the problems, there is certainly a need to spell out more clearly what recent changes in environments (in cities and elsewhere) mean for shared futures.

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Melliferopolis Fest, Helsinki 2016

With a nod to assemblage urbanism, I think the following characterisation of the book might be justified: it is made up ofaccounts by sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and scholars of architecture and technology, who offer analyses involving artists, commuters, public toilets, publics, human and nonhuman actors and infrastructures, drawing on work by John Dewey and Jacques Rancière, about and inspired by networks, Madrid, Hamburg, London, Peter Sloterdijk’s philosophy, architects and, of course, the work of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers.

The book has one feature in particular in common with Design Anthropological Futures, namely writing style. Hyper-alert to their own positions, to the potentially violent effects of expert abstractions, and to their indebtedness to the nonacademic partners whose work they report upon, many (though not all) of the authors produce prose that can frustrate. Readers looking simply to learn something new and be confident of having learned something new, have to work to pass through the authors’ own hesitations to get to their mostly nuanced and arguably challenging arguments.

Personally I do find both books insightful and illuminating. They testify to a hunger for epistemologies and conversations that have little place in the institutions of industrial modernity and capitalism, including the corporatised University. They indicate that new methodological approaches to more-than-human world-making are taking root and blossoming.

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Urban gardening in Budapest, 2016

P.S. Today’s dominant discourses about the future feature mostly Pollyanna-ish or hyperbolic rhetoric and generally support technology driven visions. Sometimes they do put the human at their centre,  often they invoke the experience-near the virtues of design practice. Rarely, however, do they really get what these books get, which is the incredible creativity as well as unbearable necessity of coexisting with the full range of the creatures that exist through design or accident (or something else).

The discipline that’s done most to nurture appreciation of this situation is, I think, anthropology.

Links to the ventures behind the pictures in order of apperance.

About project

https://fi.okfn.org/2016/06/30/osce-days-2016-helsinki-report/

https://melliferopolis.net/

https://budapest.degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/11/Budapest-Degrowth-Week.pdf