With all contact teaching at Aalto University suspended, only those with express permission can access the buildings on campus. Teaching happens online.

No chance then of incorporating walking into my courses this spring as I’d hoped. That means we won’t be able to approach environmental sustainability on foot, using all our senses. No chance to develop my idea of infrastructure walks with the students.

We are having to consider in more cerebral and discursive ways the nodes and lines that connect us here in Helsinki with far-away things, people and processes. Shame, since in one way or another, to support sustainability creatively (it’s in the name of the master’s programme), we need to understand those connections.

Still, a while ago, as part of Helsinki Design Week 2019 I did instigate a small walk on the Aalto campus. Walking seemed a natural fit for the theme, Designs for a Cooler Planet.

Walking is the speed for noticing, as Anna Tsing reminds us, so walking together offered a way of noticing more richly. In the pitch I’d made for the Otaniemi Walk, I boasted that like the Ancients, we would stroll together to learn. No great innovation there, I suppose, walking has swiftly become an approach-of-choice for many of us curious about the environment, and I will continue making notes on it on this blog.

Anna K HDW walk Otaniemi 2019

Photo by Eeva Berglund

And so, with Anna Kholina (above), who has walked, talked, sketched, listened, photographed and videoed most of Otaniemi campus for her doctorate, we ventured into a sunny September (!) evening. We attended particularly to the infrastructures or foundations that our ways of life depend on.

I got to indulge my passion for pipes, handles and boxes. We all got to quiz each other about such things – as experts in ways of life (culture and history you might say, though I take an anthropological view on that stuff – pretty much everything is included!), others as technical experts, still others shared local stories. (The masculine bias of those stories, though, in this hub of Finnish engineering prowess, meant we didn’t dwell on those*.)

Drains at Otaniemi 2019 GJ

Photo by Guy Julier

We were a small but enthusiastic group. I was also glad to have Samir Bhowmik along to share his knowledge of the subterranean supports of our Finnish normal. We need archaeologists of contemporary (and recent) media infrastructures like him, to help us attend to things like underground cables that are ordinarily invisible.

Back in September I was nurturing the idea of attending to such technical networks with the students. We could perhaps work out some grounded and easy-to-point-at examples of how the nearby and far-away are linked in ways that affect their sustainability. We could maybe also develop a new awareness of what it might mean to speak of the environment, nature, infrastructure and so on. We might work out ways to analyze how seamlessly – or not – growing things, manufactured things and ideas are blended into the landscape and how they operate in our everyday worlds.

I thought that if we built up our conversations from the act of walking to notice, the courses would work differently. My hope was that walking might help us all consider the environment as irredeemably historical and surprisingly human without ever ceasing to be natural.

Over the months since then I have found afficionados of learning from the immediate and sensory – walking for example – keen to understand urban networks, whether (easily) sensed by us or not. There are so many papers, books and online references for one to get lost in… I want to indulge in infrastructural tourism.  I’ve even started daydreaming of being twenty-something again, starting university studies over again, since these days it is possible to seriously research such modern things as cables, toxic materials or city streets and still be an anthropologist. Despite its colonial baggage, i.e. an early interest in precisely the non-modern, anthropology can be a fabulous way to study things that are overtly modern, technological and industrial (like waste disposal) in character.

That folks with such sophisticated and up-to-date knowledge of technological innovation are also into walking has been a particularly welcome discovery.

It’s a change from the common tendency for emphasizing the body and the senses in quiet, out-of-the-way or relatively solitary contexts. As beautiful and empowering as such accounts can be, I still get the impression that walking methods  are overwhelmingly for researching worlds and experiences that are earth-bound in a pre-anthropocene way – without cables, wires, magnetic fields and monetizable digital data. Without those, though, it’s hard to acknowledge and analyze, let alone to start redesigning, the normality that industrialism has bequeathed. To turn away from current unsustainability towards real sustainability, it’s the damaging mainstream that needs analysis more – I think.

So it feels sad that I can’t do those infrastructure walks with the students right now.

That being said, student-led initiatives flourish at Aalto. They demonstrate that students already do appreciate the entanglements and connections I wanted to work through by walking. Better still, students are actually acting to change things.

Our September walk, for instance, ended up (see image below) at a student-led experiment in sustainability that is known as the Test Site (I might blog on the irony of that term at some point). Besides the garden, it has a host of initiatives that put into practice design with nature, low-tech systems and social innovation.

I know it’s stupidly late to thank our hosts from September, but it was a wonderful place and a great way to conclude our walk, with food, foot-bath and conviviality and much talk.

Thank you Andrea, Ada, Jinwook and everyone else. A mix of fast and slow, of tech and nature, of infrastructure and event, its a place where learning the here and now goes together with learning the far away. Making those connections, in my view, is precisely what sustainability expertise must be about.

So it’s a pleasure to note that there will be another walk at the Helsinki Design Week this year. Surely whatever Covid19 does, the collective – small – walk will survive through it.

 

Test Site 190912 Jinwook cropped

Photo by Hwang Jinwook

* It’s coming up to vappu, valborg, Mayday eve, that crucial festival of light towards the end of a Nordic winter. It is a fascinating cultural phenomenon whichever way you look at it. Otaniemi campus has a particular role in the festival here in Finland. Otaniemi as Technical University has long been the fount of engineering skills and of a particular kind of masculine student humour and pranks. The students have always also made a publication distributed to the  public, which at least in my experience, has traded in  gendered jokes that are understandably not equally appreciated across the current student body. Anyway, all of the above is noticeable by its absence in this year of Covid19, but anthropologist of technology, Vincent Ialenti noted its salience among technical experts in a short article.

COVID changes everything

Before COVID19 became a pandemic, I proposed to the Finnish Journal of Urban Studies, the only professional publication in Finland dedicated to urban research and spatial planning, that I write a review for them (in Finnish) of this book.

Soc Ecology and Right to the City cover

I’m working on it. Here, some English-language thoughts.

The book reflects on the injustices of urban lives in the early 21st century, seeing today’s crises as socio-ecological in nature – the social and the ecological always deeply entwined. In pandemic-struck April 2020, it would be hard to deny the entanglement of the natural and the political. It would be impossible to deny that even urbanites are also animals, human animals, susceptible to mega-scale nuisance and avoidable human tragedy caused by very, very, very small things. The shock is the extent of the trouble even in societies with spectacular technological capacity.

In social ecology terms, this is no shock, though. As an interdisciplinary field with a history, social ecology has been exploring ways to promote social and ecological diversity for decades, and looking for ways to turn around the tendency to simplify landscapes everywhere. Social ecology, less technically understood, is also an approach to planning for the future that puts relationships of dependency at the centre.

So, if everything is now up for grabs, and even the end of capitalism is printable in polite company (e.g. in this post on The Slowdown Papers), a field like social ecology is a place to go and learn. This book speaks to those concerned specifically with cities, where the aggravations of ecological and social crises are particularly intense.

The longer legacy of social ecology makes it impossible, however, to approach “the urban” or “the city” without considering its complement, “the rural” or “the countryside”. I was particularly keen to see this book because I am so frustrated with the amnesia here in Finland about the ties that bind us Helsinkians and other urbanites to the forests and smaller towns beyond. Our province is currently under lockdown but that doesn’t make us an island. Animals that we are, the borders now closed to human travellers are still open to food and medical supplies. (A theme to pursue in another post.)

What is below, was written some weeks ago and temporarily forgotten about, but as the situation continues, social ecology will surely offer evidence of and ideas for new normals to build after this great pause is over.

Social Ecology and the Right to the City: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities, edited by Federico Venturini, Emet Değirmenci and Inés Morales – a review

The key message is that ecology and urban democracy are part of the same story. All 14 diverse chapters by thinkers and activists share that starting point.

For full disclosure, let me note that I was particularly curious about the book because it includes a chapter by my friend and former colleague Brian Morris about a key inspiration for the volume, Murray Bookchin. According to Morris, Bookchin who died in 2006, has been overlooked by academics. Yet, Morris writes, he “offers the only real solution to the immense social and ecological problems that confront us” (p.12).

Indeed, I read Bookchin in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent democratic and local assembly experiments, for example in Kurdistan, have brought him back into at least some conversations. Bookchin explored how capitalism has tendency to simplify landscapes in the process of plundering it for resources, often to fuel comforts in cities.

Animals of a special kind

Concerned with the flourishing of human and other lifeforms, he oriented himself towards maintaining what he called the restorative powers of nature and humanity. He saw this task as social ecology – as in the book’s title. Bookchin’s understanding of the relationship between ecological and human exploitation was rooted in what Morris calls his philosophical naturalism. Part of this perspective was an insistence that humans are a product of organic evolution. We are animals, if of a very special kind. This way of framing nature and humans also underpins his argument that we can develop a politics (even a way of living) that involves neither “communing with the spirit world (mysticism), nor the technocratic solutions offered within the current capitalist system” (in Morris’ chapter, p. 12).

The rest of Social Ecology and the Right to the City travels through a variety of theoretical and empirical resources to return over and over again to the multiple crises of contemporary capitalism. The whole demonstrates a strong sensibility nicely captured in one of the endorsements by Sutapa Chattopadhay, who sees it as responding to the rise of “hostile and narcissistic policies”.

Some brief comments then on those contributions that most elaborate on how this is exacerbating the problematic disconnections between urban and environmental thought.

The aim of the work as a whole is to deepen discussions of “the right to the city, spatial justice and social ecology” to support “urban social movements aiming towards ecological and democratic cities” (P.86). So writes Federico Venturini – an activist-researcher with a PhD in philosophy and first editor.

Though informed by scholarship, the book is explicitly activist, arising largely out of the work of people involved in The Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, who discussed these issues at a conference in Thessaloniki in 2017. The authors clearly have an acute awareness of inequalities, as well as practical and theoretical knowledge about urban and political processes. The variation in style and content of the texts affirm the editors’ claim that the volume is an undisciplined production.

Societycide, not just ecocide

Its critique is certainly strident, and will appeal to some for that reason. Perhaps it will put off others. Those may include all who remain“under a spell”, as Olli Tammilehto puts it in his chapter, of taking what is [was?] around us as normal. The predominant tone of the book is closer to the Kurdish activist Abdullah Öcalan, who brought Bookchin into the struggles over Kurdish futures. According to Havin Guneser and Eleanor Finley’s chapter, Öcalan refers to what has been happening as societycide, not just ecocide.

Though diverse, all the chapters take a close-to-the-ground perspective on politics that, as an anthropologist, I appreciate. This becomes quite concrete in the final two chapters, whose authors aply demonstrate that the contemporary city is best understood on foot. Also, longstanding social ecologist, Daniel Chodorkoff makes explicit his debt to anthropology for understanding different types of leadership and ways of organising human existence. He returns at the end of his theoretical text to what this means for contemporary urban life, the politics unfolding where we live, in our neighbourhoods, in assemblies, town meetings and other democratic experiments. His chapter is one of many in the book, which makes positive reference to recent anarchist experiments, but Chodorkoff wants to push them further. For instance, he wants permanent autonomous zones, not just temporary autonomous zones.

The chapters also vary with respect to who they see as most active in claiming rights to the city. A number offer rather optimistic if not romantic visions of widespread potential for political mobilisation. Although it is hard to disagree with the depiction of contemporary (“successful”) cities as dead ends of a sort – aseptic, reduced to arenas of capitalist competition, perhaps no longer even cities – the forces reasserting these worrying trends are huge, and the resistance is probably not as widespread as the book makes out. Many urban activist initiatives, after all, fall far short of mentioning let alone denouncing capitalism as the source of their troubles. Still, as informed and critical commentary on what currently passes for urban development and attractive visions of the future, the book has some delightful contents.

In particular, in a chapter titled Is the Right to the City Are Right or a Revolution? Magauli Fricaudet offers a theoretically informed take on urban growth and its impacts, for example how they exploit nature, intensify the power of international elites and normalise financialisation.

The theoretical inspirations are mainly Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey in addition to Bookchin, with appearances by Eleanor Ostrom and, to a lesser extent, Saskia Sassen. Her book on Expulsions would offer a framework for putting together the types of extractivism, appropriation, rent seeking and other, often parasitic, urban activities that current mainstream debate confuses with wealth creation.

Sometimes the authors indulge in problematic generalisations and make over-stretched claims. Regardless, I do commend its ambition to go well beyond critiques of today’s [make that at least in part yesterday’s, from this April 2020 perspective] frenetic but resisted capitalism. Authors consider often overlooked types of state power, for instance as it has developed and is evolving in China (Metin Guven), and latent tendencies in society that perhaps do herald more optimistic times (Olli Tammilehto).

Towards really asking what’s important

Rewriting my final two paragraphs in April I return to my friend Brian Morris. He writes that Bookchin and, I believe, by extention social ecological narratives generally, have always understood that besides being animal, humans are intrinsically social beings, not autonomous possessive egos. We [sic] do not, by any criteria, “need” Wall Street or its everyday manifestation, shiny new shopping centres (Tripla, below, from a before-and-after-COVID19 story in Helsingin Sanomat).

Tripla 20.3.2020

Mutual dependencies between towns and hinterlands are then newly visible. So is the fact that humans need humans. No longer does one need to be a romantic to recognize and applaud mutual dependency and human contact at very local level. Nor does it any longer require quite as much imagination or radical thought to appreciate that ubiquitous capital-intensive technology does not prevent me or you from being human as well as natural/animal. Perhaps with COVID19 social ecology will flourish anew, strengthened further by attending to the urban and the Right to the City.

 

Just a few notes about walking as I’ve been thinking about it rather a lot, and, as ever, also doing the practice.

Buoyed along by environmental worries, methodological inventiveness and scholarly respect for situated knowledge, walking has become a very popular method of enquiry. Scholars are drawn to walking as a multisensory methodology, it feels just right for working in the Anthropocene. While walking, the senses can be productively  treated as both objects of curiosity and as instruments of research. The Walking Artists’ Network maintain an excellent resource including a list of publications.

It’s also been interesting to notice how doctoral students at Aalto Arts, in the qualitative methods course I have taught for the last three years, find walking so productive. One thing they have to do is a walking interview, rather a simple assignment really. Yet each year students have reported learning all sorts of new things about, well, learning. One thing I have learned here, is that as they have walked and talked, the students have also had to relinquish some of the control that, as budding researchers, they might prefer to have in that situation.

This walking that the students do seems to serve as grounding for all kinds of debates and discussions we go on to have through the course, about speaking for, learning with, taking care of and yet being critical.

(On which note, those of you interested in methods for our uneasy times, Anand Pandian’s A Possible Anthropology is a wonderful book to think with).

It matters where one walks

I’d hazard a guess that people who are lucky enough to live in or near quality environments, generally enjoy walking. It also does not take the pleasure out of walking to consider it an intellectual, even academic pursuit. I imagine Ancient Greeks were quite aware of that, and wonder how chances of nice walks correlate with other life chances in 2020.

Here we were walking with Narratiimi in 2016 in a quality environment in Laajasalo, whose future is uncertain (thanks again to Cindy Kohtala for the photo).

DSCF9682_sm_24092016

Walking always takes place in place. The pace of walking, its physicality and its necessary attachment to place, and its intimate connection to materiality, support and enforce connections and perhaps even attachments of value. But walking need not be about nostalgia for the past or romanticizing the natural, the small scale and/or the rural. I have been keeping an eye out particularly for ways of walking in technologically dense contexts.

Already most of us Earth-beings do most of our walking in urban landscapes. Here, futures have already been laid out and materialized in ways that will be shaping the links between security, surveillance and inequality for a long time to come. With that reality-check, the idea that one could deploy one’s body and one’s subjective experience as key tools of  sociological (or any other) investigation into these futures, is inadequate. Unless, that is, one subscribes to the (mystical?) notion that reality and experience are the same. (On that note, the philosophy of place, by the way, is pretty complicated stuff, although Edward Casey’s work is certainly worth a read!)

Fortunately, there are many fantastic initiatives around the world combining walking with a whole range of abstract, quantitative or technical ways of knowing. Often they are specifically geared to questioning technological stories.

In particular I find following Shannon Mattern (author of many excellent texts, including A City Is Not a Computer) on Twitter, a great way to get inspiration and a sense of what is happening.

Then again, to transport the preoccupations and the research methods of the global city, whether New York or London, to a place like Helsinki, might be to miss out on something that walking research highlights: being grounded in local context.

The value of losing epistemological control

Typically, walking appears as a way of slowing down, paying closer attention and provoking novel types of questions.

Those skills are under threat and yet fundamental, as Isabelle Stengers has argued. The Finnish environmental thinker Yrjö Haila discusses her work and its importance here. I hope I don’t misrepresent when I note that he – like Stengers – is very worried that institutional research today exacerbates misunderstanding and ignorance and puts everything in peril. That is how I understand the context from which Stengers is extending her invitation, in Another Science is Possible, to engage in “practical, collective, mundane exploration of the world surrounding us” as Haila puts it.

That describes exactly what it is – and probably all it is – that walking offers to most researchers. It’s just a part of what one does. Without the practicality, collectivity, mundaneness, and attention to what’s around us of walking, how could research find orientation? In the messiness of the world and even of scientific practice, and the radical uncertainties facing everyone and everything, do we not learn to think more adequately precisely in exploring the world around us (our bodies) with others?

Being interested in landscapes (as per my post last August), I’ve long been aware that walking in order to notice things is something I do for pleasure as well as learning, I often do it with political aims too (as with Narratiimi or friends in those parts of Helsinki getting caught up in the financialisation of urban life). In fact, if I were less self-conscious about my lack of  academic credentials over my working life, I’d not hesitate so much to claim that walking for me is almost always potentially a kind of researching.

In a sense walking is foundational, but, even for those for whom walking itself is the key focus of investigation, it goes with all the other things: reading, counting, assessing, judging, even lab-work and studio-work. It’s even worth it to read writings about writings about walking (and Stengers and Thoreau), as in this blog post by an amateur long-distance hiker.

I hope it’s not too grandiose to say that walking together provides a model at least for the kind of relinquishing of epistemological control that – following Stengers, Haila, Pandian and others – I believe is needed to nourish thought and inspire hopeful imagination.

In praise of walking together

Openstreetmap LauttasaariA week ago with friends I walked around the tip of Lauttasaari. It was an exceptional February evening, snowless but frosty and stunningly moonlit. I learned things about is the international space station, about art projects in hospitals, about my friends and their friends and many other things. I also learned something that I might have learnt a long time ago but never did: how to spot Venus.

Who knows, something from that practical, mundane and yet wonderfully convivial micro exploration may yet help solve some puzzle, open up some question or support some research project elsewhere one day.

 

 

I plan for this to be the first of a series of posts about how to find out non-trivial things about the world. Methods, if you like.

Colleex 2019 2 Tomas SC

From Ofri Lapid’s open format: “On the Surface of Text: A Reading Session with Props”, photo Zoe Aiano

I’m inclined to consider that the world is not just complex but that many of the most disturbing aspects of it are deliberately opaque. This applies whether we enter the problem via the existential anxieties of climate politics, the sabotaging of democracy or the machinations of digitally performed cognitive capitalism. Not that everything can or should be rendered transparent. It is the case though, that never-before-seen computing power, ubiquitous surveillance infrastructures and incomprehensibly big data notwithstanding, the world and its workings strike me as increasingly resistant to being known.

All this complicates residual ideas of knowledge translating into power. It confuses or at least contextualises the very idea of intellectual effort. Those things aside, for many of us, working things out together brings many joys and other rewards.

This I rediscovered with force again, with the #Colleex Collaboratory for Experimental Ethnography. #Colleex, an EASA-network, engages with experimental modes of research in and around anthropology. Since 2016 #Colleex has been collectively imagining how to pursue enquiry at the same time as pursuing change. This gives it a somewhat design anthropological hue.

Under the title, The use·ful·less·ness of the experiment, the Second #Colleex Workshop in Cieszyn, Poland, last July energised around forty people to strengthen our capacity to imagine, to think and to feel our way around ethnography today.

The workshop also helped me not just to do but to appreciate and value slowing down. To invoke Isabelle Stengers as well as the call for proposals, the meeting encouraged lingering with questions and provoked us to ask ourselves: why are we doing this work? (Not, I believe, in order to dismiss or critique, but in order to be clearer).

Cieszyn opening 2019

On the banks of the Olza River, photo Guy Julier

On the border

The July sunshine is now but a memory. It was the publication, last week, of Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough, edited by Francisco Martinez and Patrick Laviolette, that pushed me to finally write about the event. (I have a text in the book, and won’t review it.) In the poetic introduction to the collection, Fran, who is also involved in #Colleex (seen standing on the right in the photo above), writes: “Brokenness feels like something, but one does not know what it looks like, and even less how to verbalise that something” (2019: 28 ebook). Other authors in the book revel in the trickiness of capturing important things in words, or even trying to do anything as definite as “capturing”.

As with #Colleex, the book’s focus seems to be on how to keep things open. Indeed, how can one cope with a world where so much is deliberately made to go unnoticed and to be beyond democratic control?

The Cieszyn workshop had this ethos too. An implicit impulse ran through the workshop, an activist or perhaps Actor Network-style principle, of prizing open the old and the new black boxes all around us, that are quietly anchoring and materialising binary logics – us versus them as much as one versus zero – into the everyday.

This ethos of opening was, for me, powerfully instantiated in the location. Cieszyn is a delightful town on the Polish-Czech border. On the other side of the Olza River is now Czech Cieszyn. There we found more good beers and yet another currency. All we had to do was simply walk over a bridge, past former border checkpoints.

Bridge to Czech Republic 2019

From Poland to the Czech Republic, photo Guy Julier

For one born in the 1960s, and who frequently crossed the Iron Curtain as a child, this evoked memories and feelings that are particularly poignant in this 30th-anniversary week of the literal dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Our local hosts at the “Political Critique Dayroom in Cieszyn” have been doing projects with local youth since 2009. They have been drawing attention to the social and economic (I might say “designed”) barriers affecting life chances alongside more material ones, like walls or rivers. In a place like this keeping things open, resisting binaries, is subtle but consequential work.

Some examples

Openness was cleverly materialised by Natalia Romik and her nomadic architecture. Walking around small Polish communities, she has literally introduced residents to the histories of previous, Jewish, inhabitants of those places. Together with her extensive research into Jewish heritage in architecture and urban life, her portable archive encloses and discloses at the same time.

Natalia R and box 2019

Photo by Zoe Aiano

I was delighted by a phrase Natalia use in passing: “compulsive urban management”. It stayed with me as I reflected on Guy Julier’s re-presentation of six, variously “useful” 60-minute performances in Kalasatama, Helsinki. But it’s above all the use·ful·less·ness of this supposedly sustainability-oriented, “smart city” urban experiment that is worth pondering. That Guy, better known for his critical take on things, expressed his surprise in finding a new empathy with Kalasatama through these performances, suggests another way the workshop encouraged openness.

It’s cliché perhaps that artistic work and material objects lend themselves to resisting closure. Not surprisingly then, a good portion of the programme involved either performing or reflecting on material things. Similarly, film and image featured strongly, perhaps most movingly (and amusingly) for me in Zoe Aiano’s work with the Wild Pear collective. Thanks also to Zoe for some of the photos here!

The workshop practiced the ethos of openness also in the so-called open format. We had already practiced this in Lisbon two years previously in efforts to shift away from academic conventions of meeting and learning from each other. Tomás Sanchez Criado with our Polish organisers, Eva Rossal (pictured below) and Tomasz Rakowski, guided us through a programme that sometimes required patience and trust in the situations, devices, performances, experimental installations and other mini-experiments on offer. That patience was, at least for me, amply rewarded.

Eva Rossal Cieszyn 2019

Eva Rossal in Ofri’s Reading Session with Props, photo Zoe Aiano

There were also formats that somehow put me in mind of the cyborg. In what I think of as a Harawayesque way, all formats drew us to connect with whatever parts, from whatever angles we could, using whatever hinges we could, resulting in temporary yet potentially fruitful [sic] monsters.

Some formats involved text and words materialised in different ways (Elisa Taber, Ofri Lapid), not simply to play around, but to examine the powers of the written word. We also practiced becoming tricksters, manipulating plastic, paper, coins, polystyrene and smartphone screens, to lure other animals and anticipate the unknowable with Hermione Spriggs. As creatures with many senses, we also trained our ears with Piotr Cichocki’s DJ set and our taste buds with Christy Spackman’s hyper-designed chocolate.

Colleex 2019 1

Martin Büdel and Francisco Martinez, photo Zoe Aiano

Luckily for me, there was also scope for presenting more conventionally (with PowerPoint as support), so I was able to simply to relate some of my experiences of doing activist walking research.

Reflecting

Before the workshop, Tomás and I talked about the importance of confusion in fieldwork situations, something we both have experienced but also written about. It has a role in research and teaching, but it can be hard to persist in academia with the things that we feel and perhaps even see but can’t put into words. Contemporary academic conditions of work only aggravate this situation.

Gathering together as #Colleex, inviting social scientists as well as designers, artists and architects to share in papers and open formats, we put our creativity to work on the spot and in variously fleeting ways. As Tomás and Adolfo Estalella have also discussed in print, anthropology needs to open up to more interventive methods of engaging – discovering but also designing the world.

Colleex 2019 3

Reflecting on the last day with Tomasz Rakowski, Hermione Spriggs, Natalia Romik, Maica Gugolati, Marcelo Rossal, photo Zoe Aiano

It is and was tempting to endorse everything we did as creative, and to be optimistic about what the open format could do and how it might become valued. But I think what I took away from the event was something different. It was a sense – a feeling – of researchers with others struggling to make sense, and succeeding in doing so with a fresh (to me at least) courage to actually be intellectual. Maybe this is in addition to being playful or creative, but do I want to emphasise the critical intellect.

To make an academic reference is surely thus warranted. Isabelle Stengers writes about experimenting:

“What is at stake here is ‘giving to the situation the power to make us think’, knowing that this power is always a virtual one, that it has to be actualised. The relevant tools, tools for thinking, are then the ones that address and actualise this power of the situation, that make it a matter of particular concern, in other words, make us think and not recognise” (p.185)

– Stengers, I. (2005). Introductory notes on an ecology of practices. Cultural Studies Review, 11(1), 183–196.

Maybe open formats have many functions. Following Stengers they can be tools for thinking. The most provocative ones for me, were those that were open not just to fresh thought, but to the world, which the best of them managed to offer to us in that small situation at the border.

I started this post with a complaint that the world seems ever harder to know. I’ll conclude by noting that though it may be confusing to develop ethnographic experimentation as a tool to redress this problem, it can be powerful.

Border in Cieszyn 2019

Looking across the border towards Cieszyn, photo Eeva Berglund

Yesterday, at the end of the Anthropology conference here in Helsinki, with my friends and co-editors Anu Lounela and Timo Kallinen we launched our new book, Dwelling in Political Landscapes: Contemporary Anthropological Perspectives. Published by the Finnish Literature Society, it’s a fine 293-page volume to acquire as a hard copy. It’s also available as open access.

Dwelling in Pol Landsc coverI believe it’s a pretty timely publication. Even the links between climate change and land are now newsworthy. As we write in our introduction to the book, people everywhere are experiencing new hazards and unprecedented situations as their environments change, sometimes at speeds never before experienced. The book’s examples are from the extractive industries, commercial conservation and massive wind-power projects but also from more ordinary, almost imperceptibly unfolding processes of locally disturbing landscape change.

It’s the putting together the here-and-now with the over-there-and-then that helps us to appreciate the complexities and politics of living in this globalized world, with its shocking levels of unsustainability. Making these links stops us from assuming that that power, justice and injustice, or environmental or architectural damages for that matter, always come from somewhere else.

(That’s why as part of Helsinki Design Week, our ad hoc ‘walking collective’ Narratiimi, is kicking off what will hopefully be a series of walks to explore how Helsinki fits into a bigger picture of sustainable urbanism, but more about that later).

Still, if I was to take a walk on this fine Saturday afternoon, I’d probably not have political struggle and conflict on my mind. I’d be venturing out into and becoming part a great urban landscape. My gaze would rest on interesting people, beautiful architecture, sun-dappled sea and verdant parks. I would hear its sounds and feel its air.

These are and will hopefully remain excellent aspects of taking a walk in Helsinki. But with training in anthropology and planning, and some understanding of design, my attention is often drawn to the city’s political things. They are often also ordinary.

I’d find it hard to ignore bits of urban infrastructure that facilitate some personal preferences and complicate others (mostly I notice how much has been built to ease the flow of cars). I’d encounter lots of machines (designed to be inviting) for governing the city with the help of computing, something Shannon Mattern eloquently lays out in this text.

I’m also routinely surprised by new and often strikingly large buildings that go up in just a few weeks.

This very ordinary, perhaps even ugly landscape below, in Sturenkatu, photographed two summers ago, is gone. Now it’s flats.

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We can’t have big skies as well as affordable homes (though actually, maybe we could) so what, exactly, should be built in such places is the topic of local political wrangling. But it’s not unconnected from a global phenomenon of accelerated and profit-driven urban growth.

My hope is that a debate that has started among some academics could be pursued in Helsinki too around norms and expectations about urban growth. It could help question imperatives to grow the city for the sake if ” competitiveness” and even maybe reform the planning culture that’s increasingly about light-weight participation and greenwashing if not just in the service of capital.

I made a start in my own chapter in the book, which I tried to write in a way that would not put off non-academics. (Here’s that link again).

And there is hope. For example, an eloquent playwright and director, Juha Siltanen, is quoted in today’s (Finnish language) paper saying that a completely new geography awaits us, demanding new ethics and new scripts (the theatre metaphor works, I think), as expansion ceases to be possible. I like the image of something spreading out, burying landscapes everywhere until there is nothing left for it to cover over.

Helsinki will not be spared the damages if this expansionism continues. More importantly, even here our landscapes are suffused with politics and local choices, no matter how ardently this may be denied.

 

There is both disdain for the past and a worship of it in the modern world. A penchant for novelty made “creative destruction” in cities not just ordinary, but necessary. At least that’s been the view of the capitalists who have made profit from it.

Yet at the same time, “having” a shared history has also helped Moderns distinguish themselves from Others. That’s why, before independence (1917), the emerging Finnish intelligentsia worried about whether or not Finland was the Subject of its own History. If it was, the reasoning went, it should be in charge of its own affairs.

But heritage isn’t just about nationalism. Questions about the value of existing things routinely come to mind these days, as I notice old buildings being abandoned, even left to rot. It’s not just happening in Helsinki, the loss of shared built heritage is an issue in many places. In the extreme case of New York City, Marshall Berman called it urbicide (e.g. in this posthumous text). But still.

So I wrote a letter about just one small but significant part of my own everyday landscape at risk, which should be getting more attention. The newspaper published it but not before in my impatience I had posted it on this blog too – so as not to waste my effort.

In Helsinki as elsewhere, there is much talk about cities as the best place to confront wicked future challenges. That’s where the problems are at their most intense, but it’s also where the innovation and “buzz” characteristic of urban life get scaled up and turned into success and liveliness. This requires imagination and courage, though. Alas, Helsinki’s current real estate policies pull in the opposite direction. An almost incredible example is the situation of the historic hospital area of Lapinlahti.

Lapinlahti is a fabulous asset for Helsinki today, unique and open to all. Ten years ago it was a secluded mental hospital area, closed off from passers-by. Now it brims with initiatives supporting wellbeing, sustainable lifestyle, civic participation and all kinds of activities. It’s thanks to voluntary and non-profit groups [like Mieli, Mental Health Finland], Lapinlahden Lähde and the Tilajakamo Cooperative, and to many low-wage workers, that the old hospital buildings and the magnificent grounds, now owned by the city, are flourishing. An added delight is how the atmosphere at Lapinlahti differs from the noisy mainstream.

So it’s striking that the city doesn’t expressly support all this activity.* On the contrary. In the middle of the Christmas holidays, it launched an ideas competition for developing the area, though it appears not to be primarily about good ideas as much as about attracting one entity, a company or a consortium, to manage the entire site as a whole. The city is probably looking for  someone external to shoulder the responsibility for the maintenance and refurbishment of the site. Fortunately that task is recognized as needing to match the considerable heritage and other values of the place. It comes, after all, from the pen of the architect Carl Ludvig Engel, father of Helsinki’s neo-classical town centre.

According to the competition brief, the city of Helsinki has no use for the buildings, either as a hospital or anything else. In the light of so-called economic realities, municipal leaders perhaps see it as their duty to maximise rental income on city property. The situation bears examining from other angles as well. This is a notable site of cultural history as well as producer of many types of values through its work in the arts and mental health. Beyond it, the ideology of competitiveness that prevails in parts of the administration is threatening efforts to build a city of variety and layers of history and foster the spirit of self-organizing.

Quite certainly, if Helsinki trots out standardised solutions, this will also threaten the city’s appeal and international admiration.

* Posting my letter-to-the-editor on their Facebook page, the folks at Lapinlahden Lähde inserted a small correction to the text, to note that the city has provided grant money for an urban nature centre and citizen participation work.

So anyway, although personally I don’t visit as often as I might, and I’m not an architectural historian, I feel strongly about places with character, breathing space (urban gardening here too, of course) and echoes of history – plus probably millions of other unauditable values like Lappari.

I worry that there aren’t more resources or ambitions to rework the way histories and values other than those of real-estate profits could continue to support life in the city. That explains no doubt why I keep blogging about it. Perhaps I will get to do some more serious research on it too. Perhaps I will even get to walk and talk on the subject soon.

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A start was made when delightfully, on 22.5. a small group of like-minded people walked from Lapinlahti to another place where urbanites and urban life are wonderfully energised. Along the way we discussed all the valuable but unvalued things these places give.

From Lapinlahti, dogding the thunder, we progressed to Sähinä. It is also a co-operatively run, brilliantly inventive and much loved centre of cultural life. It too is housed in a building originally built for quite different uses. But this is moving onto other stories.

Teksti, jonka lähetin kaksi viikkoa sitten Hesarille mielipidekirjoituksena.* Toissa viikolla kaupunki kertoi, että Lapparin ‘ideakilpailun‘ vastauksia saapui heille määräaikaan mennessä neljä. Joskus kesän lopulla sitten kuulemme, mitä viranomaiset ovat miettineet. Oppiiko kaupungin johto tukemaan kaikkea sitä arvokasta mitä Lapparissa on, vaikkei itseään siitä voisikaan kiittää? Vai kaataako se kylmää vettä niskaan?

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Helsingissä puhutaan paljon siitä, että tulevaisuuden haasteet kohdataan kaupungeissa. Niissä ongelmat korostuvat, mutta samalla kaupunkielämälle ominaisen innovatiivisuuden ja ’pöhinän’ tuomat radikaalit ratkaisut skaalautuvat menestykseksi ja elinvoimaksi. Tarvitaan mielikuvitusta ja rohkeutta. Valitettavasti kaupungin harjoittama kiinteistöpolitiikka vetää päinvastaiseen suuntaan. Miltei uskomaton esimerkki ongelmasta on Lapinlahden historiallisen sairaala-alueen nurinkurinen tilanne.

Tänä päivänä Lapinlahti on kaikille avoin, ainutlaatuinen ja upea osa Helsinkiä. Missä oli kymmenen vuotta sitten ohikulkijoilta suljettu mielisairaala-alue on nyt hyvinvoinnin, luonnonkestävän elämisen, kansalaistoiminnan ja moninaisen tekemisen tyyssija. On vapaaehtoisten, voittoa tavoittelemattomien tahojen, Lapinlahden Lähteen ja Osuuskunta Tilajakamon, sekä pienipalkkaisten ihmisten ansiota, että kaupungin omistamat sairaalarakennukset upeine puistoineen nyt kukoistavat. Hienoa on myös se, miten Lapinlahti erottuu tunnelmaltaan hälyä tuottavasta valtavirrasta.

On hätkähdyttävää, että kaupunki ei erityisesti tue toimintaa. Päinvastoin, joululomien keskellä se julkisti Lapinlahden sairaala-aluetta koskevan ideakilpailun, jossa ei tosin etsitä ensisijaisesti ideoita, vaan yhtä tahoa, yritystä tai yritysryhmää, joka pystyisi hallinnoimaan kohdetta kokonaisuutena. Kaupunki kai etsii kyllin leveitä hartioita ottamaan vastuun ylläpitokorjausten ja –kustannusten hoitamisesta (onneksi) kuitenkin niin, ettei alue menetä arvojaan. Onhan kyseessä Carl Ludvig Engelin, Empire-Helsingin pääarkkitehdin, käsialaa oleva, pian 170-vuotias kokonaisuus.

Kilpailukutsun mukaan Helsingin kaupungilla ei ole ”tarvetta rakennusten sairaala- eikä muuhunkaan käyttöön”. Niin sanottujen taloudellisten realiteettien valossa, hallinto ehkä näkee velvollisuudekseen pyrkiä maksimoimaan kiinteistötuottoja. Asiaa kannattaa tarkastella muistakin lähtökohdista. Kyseessä on merkittävä kulttuurihistoriallinen kohde ja monenlaista arvoa luova taiteen ja mielenterveysalan toimijoiden keskittymä. Vallitseva kilpailuideologiaan perustuva politiikka uhkaa ylipäänsä yrityksiä luoda Helsinkiin monimuotoista ja elämän kerroksellisuutta heijastavaa kaupunkia ja aloitekykyä palkitsevaa henkeä. Toki jos tulevaisuuden haasteisiin vastataan vanhoilla standardiratkaisuilla, on se uhka myös Helsingin vetovoimaisuudelle ja kansainväliselle arvostukselle.

Eeva Berglund, helsinkiläinen tutkija.

Kesän muiden tekemisten lomassa voisin itse ehkä perehtyä siihen, miten kohtuusajattelu (Degrowth) saisi tuulta purjeisiinsa myös kaupunkipolitiikassa.

* p.s. Julkaisihan se Hesari sen kirjoitukseni sittenkin – täältä voi linkata.

I feel I am a little more confused these days than I have been. Enthused by my typically eclectic reading of academic texts (e.g. this), I’ve been trying to link them to what is happening in or to Helsinki. How are the weird things happening here (and I’m not just talking about yesterday’s elections) connected to news and academic reflections about how urban development is affecting people, the Earth and democracy elsewhere? If the built environment really is crucially important both for social order and individual life, as I believe it is, then how should I understand policies towards it right here in Helsinki?

To help figure out, I am committing to this blog post some rather raw thoughts. They revolve around the fact that I found myself going on three consecutive days to the wonderful Lapinlahti hospital, which is gradually becoming known to at least some Helsinkians as a fascinating place of quirkiness, peace and cultural heritage. But the best things going on there appear to be threatened.

First, the tiniest bit of background (for more, follow the links and/or dream up your own research project on it. It opens doors to countless fascinating streams of historically significant events).

From 1841 to 2008 Lapinlahti served as the country’s foremost mental institution. Most of that time, it was closed off to ordinary residents, a fact recalled in the sign on display at the small Mental Museum operating there.

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After the last psychiatric units were rehoused, it remained in city owndership but was left abandoned until volunteers gradually got it back on its feet. They struck a very short-term tenancy agreement with the city and have been able, despite little monetary support, to turn it into a life-affirming, quietly and preciously special place a hub of makers and doers whose future is, however, now uncertain.

Two years ago already I was concerned about this and helped organise a discussion about the contested future of the place. Fed up then as now with planning for shopping, I wrote:

…  Lapinlahti outshines, in every possible dimension, the tawrdy stuff of the retail therapy that Helsinki is currently building …

Its two main tenants were concerned about how their activities, which were then getting off to a good start, would be able to continue. In one wing the Tilajakamo cooperative provides affordable (really affordable) space to artists. In the other, the social enterprise Lapinlahden Lähde rents out space for voluntary and cultural activities with a special focus on wellbeing and mental health.

Instead of taking responsibility for developing the good work already underway here, the city wants someone to take the troublesome hospital area off its hands. Sairaalan piha

At Christmas last year, the city launched an ideas competition to come up with a high quality, functionally efficient and feasible “solution” to the “problem” of Lapinlahti. This would involve just one instance (investor? visionary?) to realize it. The brief does require, however that an endangered moth’s protection be secured and the area remain open to the public for recreational uses.

There is also the option to rent the whole to a suitable tenant. Several sources tell me that this is only in the call because of their lobbying. Many talk of the “so-called” ideas competition, adding hand-signal-scare-quotes as they speak.

Indeed, ideas are not in short supply here (see the text here and the video here for instance). Finance is.

Money. The city wants first of all to sell, not to care for or develop. According to an article in Helsingin Sanomat from December 2018 (screen shot below), to make its offer more attractive to investors, the city is even considering rezoning for new building rights on the edge of the park. The first round of the competition closes 31.5.2019.

Lapinlahti myyntiin HS 281211

One explanation for the craziness going on here now is that Helsinki has adopted policies that legally oblige it to manage the structures it owns for profit. Having said that, a city government is also legally obliged to look after its citizens’ wellbeing. It must ensure access to recreational spaces. To me and many others it seems clear that its first priority should be to support the activities that can already be found there. What amazing things could happen if the energy one feels there were supported with just a little bit of funding. The place needs maintenance. It does not need to be turned into luxury.

It also worries me that such a high profile place is so hard-pressed to gain support for activities that support social and use value over financial value. While I was on a guided history tour, former president Tarja Halonen was opening a new exhibition of Roma Culture. I only hope this kind of support will also lead to the material support that we people of Helsinki are bound to need as the threats to people, earth and democracy I began with remain with us.

(No wonder this is tricky to write about. There is so much to care about in Lapinlahti. And so much is endangered here: architectural heritage merges into cultural patrimony merges into personal and family histories merges into social fabric merges into walking in the cemetary and eating together (Loop) merges into the restorative joy of gardening merges into urban planning merges into land use requirements merges into Helsinki’s geography merges into loss of (bio)diversity merges into pollution merges into the growth imperative merges into climate change merges into troubles with Earth systems merges into foreshortened futures merges into school strikes merges into climate anxiety merges into all of the above… Aaarrggghhh. But it helped to write and to meet all those people who work every day to develop good things for us neighbours.)

(On my outings this past weekend, I also went to buy bread from the remarkable baker who can be found on weekends in the red-brick Venetsia building on the right in the picture above. Discovering him was a fabulous bonus. Do try, for instance, his Totally Nuts loaf, sold by the kilo and worth every cent!)

 

 

Living sustainably isn’t easy when you’re rich

As I write, all who live in Europe must know that we are living climate change. Perhaps this also presages more recruits to the many initiatives of prefiguring more climate-sane and equitable futures.

Like so many of us engaged with environmentalism and other social movements, I struggle to assess and evaluate the role of the countless creative activists whose efforts sustain them and whose work I’ve been following with admiration and interest for the last decade and more. It’s just that their being so wealthy means that however activist and green they are, and however great the ideas they are promoting (like Dodo’s Megapolis events, below, 2009), they/we are still a problem.

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In Helsinki you can only have a sustainable lifestyle if you are homeless. For the rest of us, our homes and our engineered surroundings, built to serve consumer pleasures or, rather, industrial capitalism over decades and centuries, undo any efforts at sustainability. This contradiction cannot, however, be grounds for criticising environmentalists in wealthy places, even if the activism alternates with shopping as in the picture above.

A recent report by colleagues, 1.5. Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints, makes clear that becoming a “sustainable civilisation” requires massive shifts in those infrastructures. But the authors also argue that it needs, as they call it, “a groundswell of actions from individuals and households”. Less driving and flying, more vegetable-based diet and, as I view it, probably more convivial hanging out. Also, quite a bit of collective experimentation.

This, by the way, is what is on display in the Finnish pavilion (also the handiwork of good colleagues) of the XXII Triennale di Milano opening tomorrow. The somewhat alarming title of the show is Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. As ever, I hesitate at the idea that the required humongous reduction in resource exploitation will be spearheaded by people who, as the website puts it, can quip that as human extintion looms, design makes for a more elegant ending…

Yet it also suggests the opposite: the so-called creative classes have been cossetted over the last three decades in economic and urban policy. If they don’t launch themselves into sustainability, how can anyone else in the over-consuming global North do so?

So I find that I keep being interested in the comfortably off – my own “bubble”, if you like. Already as an aspiring anthropologist embarking on doctoral research in the early 1990s, my academic work was about ordinary people in an ordinary place. Later I’ve come to think that I’m eternally curious about the weirdness of the MN or “Modern Normal.

At least in climate terms, “normal” produces “disastrous”. So, we need more research on what this “disastrous” “normal” consists of and what sustains it.

Cue lots of wonderful, great research on grassroots activism that is a struggle to keep up with (or classify sensibly).

The comfortable slot

Although you could talk of a comfortable bubble, I’ve started to think about activists in Germany, the UK and Finland, as being part of the “comfortable slot”. It’s a structural thing.

I’ve been playing with the concept in seminar papers. I use it in a chapter I wrote for a book edited by Francisco Martinez and Patrick Laviolette, due out in a few months, on practices of repair. The book tackles this topical theme through ethnographic analyses of the failures, gaps, wrongdoings and leftovers that are inspiring so much creative research (e.g. discard studies, or social studies of waste, pollution and externalities).

The idea of social arrangements and relations being reduced to a “slot” derives, in a roundabout way, from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous (1991) critique of the kind of society that could produce anthropology. He pointed out that anthropology had established itself as a discipline by contrasting an Other, the “savage slot”, with a politically far-from-innocent Self. This was the Christian European “slot” that claims descent from a Golden Age of Greek Civilization, and still models normality as male, white and property owning.

Then, in a much-cited paper from 2013 Joel Robbins observed that something like a “suffering slot” had been shaping the discipline. Later still, Sherry B. Ortner (2016) framed recent anthropology as overwhelmingly preoccupied with the “dark side” of neoliberalism.

She also notes Robbins’ call for an “anthropology of the good … focussed on such topics as value, morality, well-being, imagination, empathy, care, the gift, hope, time, and change” (quoted in Ortner 2016: 58). Many activists that I know could be described as members not just of the European slot but of the most comfortable among them, and still trying to live up to these values.

So my chapter in Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough looks at how ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary places are compulsively drawn to repairing the damages brought about by decades and centuries of ordinary industrial capitalism. Or, of the Modern Normal.

Vegan junk food makes a point

On the corner of a small park is a “peaked” kiosk, an icon of Helsinki’s summer months, which used to sell sweets and ice creams. For some time, many of these kiosks were unused. These days, those that are in use are run on short-term leases and often by what you might call entrepreneurial neighbourhood activists.

In 2016, this kiosk got a new identity. Called Jänö (bunny), it began to serve unhealthy vegan food. By serving unhealthy vegan food, it punctured expectations that vegans would be as self-righteous about their health as about their world-saving (both silly prejudices). More seriously, Jänö reused an existing building, putting into practice at a small-scale but in a symbolically significant way, the principle of renovating and reusing rather than tearing down to make way for something new. The business model was an unusual mix of crowd-funding through social media channels and conventional bank loans, involving, I imagine, considerable expertise in the legal structures of co-operative enterprise.

Jänö by GJ May 2018

May 2018. Photo by Guy Julier.

I’m not sure who will be running it this year, but I look forward to another summer of liveliness and quirkiness.

Jänö really highlights the contrast between the massive scale of city-sponsored development and “city making” at the grassroots level.

Material environmentalism of everyday life

What’s so interesting is that Helsinki’s most comfortable slot could be expected to just sit back and relax, live their lives and rely on government and the businesses it supports to sustain their comforts. But many clearly aren’t. They may not be protesting so much in the streets (though they appear to be doing more of that too) as protesting through action, by prefiguring. Some vehemently deny that they are protesting. They are just doing stuff.

They are not the “social wildlife” of squats (vilified in Finland, but also admired for their political imagination), or of the early anti-globalisation protests that “respectable society” complained about in the 1990s. More likely they are those with “post-material values” more focused on quality of life than quantity of stuff.

David Schlosberg and Romand Coles coined a term for this: new materialist movements. It’s a varied, dynamic and growing type of environmentalist action. It involves people who are no longer “willing to take part in unsustainable practices and institutions, and not satisfied with purely individualistic and consumer responses”, and more likely to be restructuring everyday practices of circulation: they eat local and low-carbon, prefer cycling, like repairing and making. They aren’t passive consumers, but active participants and avid fans of DIY.

One area in Helsinki that is increasingly relevant in talking of material flows and views of the good life, is the built environment. The conflicts over landscape change (high-rise building), population targets, land use and the sustainability (or not) of today’s construction sector are currently very much on the agenda (as noted here, in Finnish).

Here too, the comfortably off have an important role. And here too, my hunch is that the contradictions hit people personally: architects may be forced to work for big construction to make a living, and still lend their expertise to promoting alternatives. More on this, anon, I hope.

Hundreds of flowers blooming for now

After it ceased operating as a hospital, Lapinlahti old mental asylum spent some years looking very drab.

Thanks to the efforts of alliances of activists from creative and variously comfortable slots, it has now become self-organising world of artists, mental health professionals and associations and of different kinds of sustainable initiatives. One is Restaurant Loop, which I warmly recommend. Together they have made piecemeal improvements to the historic buildings. They serve mental and physical wellbeing, support creative labour and delight us citizens who get to enjoy its beautiful architecture and social vibrancy. I wrote about it almost exactly two years ago on the blog.

As a funky film made by its tenants shows, it is a space of hundreds of flowers blooming. It would be a fabulous place to do an ethnographic study of Robbins’ anthropology of the good in the 21st century.

Alas, the city is making their lives difficult. Current tenants are apparently to be out of the building by the summer. The city is now looking for an entity with an idea for the buildings – as well as the corporate and financial clout to realise that idea in practice.

The city of Helsinki can only apparently imagine business-as-usual for Lapinlahti: run by a single corporate entity with a strong brand and heroic vision. They appear blind to its multiple functions, organic social networks and above all the amazing way the current tenants continue its long tradition of caring for us all by caring for the vulnerable.

Why? Because the city is obliged to make a profit on the buildings it owns.

A municipality also has many other obligations.

To make those obligations have weight and to really counter the disastrous modern normal, which has its eye on economic growth above all else, is taking a lot of work. But  it is happening. The more the “comfortable slot” participates in building climate-sane and equitable futures, the more quickly I suspect the necessary changes are likely to happen.

I just read Felix Ringel’s engaging if theoretically quite heavy monograph, Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest Shrinking City. The title is slightly misleading (as the author admits), but it’s well worth reading, excellent anthropology. It’s a story of when (urban) growth ceases to orient collective effort.

It deals with the fact that cities shrink as well as grow. Personallly I’d have wanted more about how life in such a situation gets arranged and rearranged, and some more on how urban growth became such a fetish in the first place.

But I guess the book’s emphasis is elsewhere, for instance on theory. It makes sophisticated contributions to social science debates on temporality and broadly philosophical questions about emergence and becoming.

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This jumped off page 168:

“Instead of waiting for emergent new ideas, many people in my fieldsite … were busy trying to keep things alive. If they had not made the effort, these forms would have ceased to exist.”

The book, after all, describes people and events involved with sustaining. Its protagonists, though preoccupied with the future, are not only anxiously scanning for future potential or seeking ways to control uncertainty and risk (as neoliberalism and academics typically do).  They are busy keeping things alive.

That insight helped me discern something new (for me) about how people in general deal with social and environmental change that they don’t like. Isn’t the activism that fascinates me about keeping alive the things that activists do like? Whether in urban gardens, repair clubs or sharing initiatives, as in the Helsinki I’ve been curious and written about, or in the practical activities of citizens maintaining “their club, association, school or kindergarten” that Ringel writes about, those who are recognised as activists really are making things exist.[1]

In describing life in Hoyerswerda, a shrinking postindustrial city, Back to the Postindustrial Future dwells mainly on something I remember quite a few Germans talking about 25 years ago when I did my doctoral fieldwork there: the “no future” phenomenon, which they referred to using the English words. A key difference is that I was doing research on environmentalism, so the lost future in question was planetary, whereas Ringel’s focus is on a city with supposedly “no future”.

Hoyerswerda was once home to 70 000 residents but over half its population migrated out after German reunification and the dismantling of the local coal industry. Like in so many other parts of the reunified Germany, unemployment “roared” (to use the lovely word from page 5). Ultimately, losing a future the city had grown used to, also meant a disorientating deconstruction of Hoyerswerda’s cityscape.

Things are complicated there, as elsewhere, by investments that were made in the past in large-scale and programmatic futures. Those futures were part of the socialism that was built in and for the German Democratic Republic. They materialised for example in education, or in the building of entire new towns. Other futures have emerged through programmes of integrating the city into a neoliberal global economy, and the “spatially widened, increasingly inclusive metanarrative of change” (p. 51) accompanying these.

Insisting from the start on there being many different futures and future narratives in Hoyerswerda, the book also surveys a depressingly same-y and ubiquitous narrative of urban futures. This is the prescribed optimism of zombie neoliberalism, the dogged determination of so many decision makers to adopt criteria of urban success designed by and for corporate elites.[2]

Drawing explicitly on David Harvey, Ringel sees the situation in the context of global capitalism’s mode of urban development as a competition for foreign investment. He writes, “Like so many other small- and medium-sized cities worldwide, Hoyerswerda failed in that competition – and blamed itself and its wrong image for it” (Ringel 2018: 141).

Yet the story isn’t so simple, and it’s far from over. Although youth continue to leave, new traditions are taking hold in the city. Above all, the book describes a wealth of pedagogical and artistic work centered on dealing creatively with painful loss and experiences of powerlessness. And although the book doesn’t discuss social movements directly, its analyses of how the past and the future are used in the present spoke directly to the question that bugs me decade after decade: how might one best understand activists who explicitly want to influence social and environmental change?

It’s a question that I’ll be pursuing at the Finnish Society for Environmental Social Science (YHYS) annual colloquium in a couple of weeks. In my abstract for a panel on environmental justice, I promised a paper titled ‘The nature of urban growth and the meaning(s) of environmental justice’.

In addition to drawing on Ringel’s work, writing my presentation will also push me, once again, to engage with Bruno Latour’s take on environmentalism.

Latour seems unhappy about how stubbornly environmentalists remain wedded to modern epistemologies that reify nature and science. What they should be doing instead is, as he says in an interview published earlier this year in the journal Social Movement Studies, “rethinking nature and science”. I critiqued his work twenty years ago on this same score, and I think I may have to do so again.

Perhaps this just means that things move rather slowly in academia despite so much talk of urgency and need for change. Then again, many of us are pleading, are we not, for the chance to slow down thinking.

Whether to laugh or cry that I find myself so irritated by the same, massively influential author who so inspired me all that time ago, I’m still rather enjoying all this. Particularly when I see ethnographic engagements still put to wonderful conceptual use in works like Ringel’s Back to the Postindustrial Future. His book is about temporal reasoning and a town and has nothing explicit to say about social movements. Still, I think it has already helped me update my own thinking about that topic. Thank you Felix.

I wonder whether Latour’s new book – ordered already – will do the same. If it does (and maybe even if not) I may do a “review” of that here too.

[1] To put it in a different language that’s also popular, they’re doing ontological design. Or, since all design is ontological in that it makes ways of being and doing possible (or enforces them) as Arturo Escobar might say, they’re doing design. But this is a diversion.

[2] It’s a story unfolding in Helsinki too, as construction continues to make the city attractive to financial interests, tourists and, perhaps, shoppers rather than citizens.