inter·punct joins Mark Stanley for a breakfast interview discussing culture and politics in the late-postmodern. This interview was published as a stand-alone issue. Download PDF.
For additional information and to view Mark’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
i•p: You presented a broad array of work, far more modes of expression than most lecturers. This made us wonder if you see yourself as wearing many hats - for instance, if you act as a curator for exhibition work and as a critical designer with the futurology institute - or if you see yourself as an architect in all of your projects?
Mark Stanley: I like to think of myself as a cultural producer more than anything. I think architecture and architects are good at that anyway; they know more than they let on about cultures, about things that happen inside of architecture, about things that architectures cultivate or throttle or modulate inside of them. That’s probably my favorite way to think about it. So when I’m taking on different modes, I’m usually not thinking about it differently; I like to not make distinctions between the types of work I do. I get that other people do like to do that, so any kind of steerage or categorical framework around my work – and this is the only reason I would do it – would be to try to be understandable to different audiences. In this lecture, I just wanted everyone to know that I wasn’t completely crazy, so I showed some work up front to demonstrate that I’m a designer too, before getting into something I was way more interested in, which was to try to open up some cultural juice, some political frameworks, some programmatic thinking around what happens in the world and in architecture and how they can be allied with each other.
i•p: Is the idea of medium something you have resolved going into a project, or is it a process that influences the articulation of the end product?
MS: It’s a little of both. There are moments along the way where you have to basically risk a claim and say, “Okay. I know I’m going to make 21 agents in this project”. That happened in the Manhattan Project 2.0 really early on. I just said, “I really want to spread the deck on this project. I want to make 21 agents. Some of them are going to be built things, some are going to be people, some will be non-human actors, and some are going to be government entities, but I know 21 is the right number.” Just because it’s larger than 20 and less than 22, it’s an odd number, it’s a multiple of 7 and it just seems like the right number. So there are moments like that, but there are also moments along the way where things start to emerge: structures, ways of organizing things. For example, there were three governmental entities: The Agency of Airborne Information, the Bureau of Techno-Nature, and the Institute of Simulation and Actualization. So those three became main organizers in the project to gather the other eighteen agents around them, which was not a concept I had at the beginning but one which emerged through the development.
i·p: You talk about this idea of Network Culture, where urbanity is synonymous with connectivity — but what does that mean for the new rural? How do these ideas apply to the 2016 election, one of the clearest urban-rural divides in recent history?
MS: The 2016 election was this recalibration moment between the urban and the rural. People who had always been rural and had never engaged in what we think of as the city suddenly had all this agency in everything because they were connected to the network. They had been snapped – at least behaviorally and socially – into an urban condition. The election map is a sea of red with blue points on it where all the cities are. Every time there’s a city in a county, that county turns blue. We know that cities align with democratic left-leaning politics. Why is that? Because there are simply more people in a space together. They have to get along together, even if they don’t like each other, and become citizens next to each other. But in a rural place, that’s not the case. I grew up in a very rural place, which is just an entirely different life experience. After a while, a lot of political ideas that don’t involve other people appeal to you a lot more. The 2016 election cycle was interesting because the people in rural places which presumably had no agency to change the politics of the nation in any serious sense tapped into this really high-powered agency across social media. And now we’re learning a lot more about other non-human agents that had a hand in that too, like Russian bots. “Where’s the rural now?”, I think you said. Well, I’m not sure it exists anymore. I mean, what are the statistics about cell phones — there are 9 billion cellphones on the planet and 7 billion people? Is anyone really disconnected anymore? And if they are, do they really register on the global culture? Maybe that’s one fairly irresponsible way of looking at it, but if we just allow ourselves irresponsibility for a moment, sometimes it gives us new ways of thinking about everything.
i•p: There’s an idea in policy debate of inherency versus solvency; inherency being the statement of the status quo and solvency a much more pragmatic call to action. A lot of us struggle with this space between just raising awareness about an issue and dictating a solution, and we wonder how you reconcile the two within your own work as you bridge the gap from very human-related practical solutions to extremely speculative projects.
MS: It’s a good question; a difficult one. I think that it’s easy and common, not only in architecture, but in creative and policy disciplines all over, for people to identify the problem and then want to solve that problem. And I think people are increasingly dissatisfied with that in the 21st century, because everything is so complicated. Everyone knows that there’s not a simple solution to what you’re talking about, but one doesn’t also need to throw up their hands and say, “Oh, there isn’t a solution to this problem”. I’m far more willing to go that route in my own life and work—to admit that there might not be a simple fix for an issue. Can we cope with that? Is that ok? Are we going to live on, and how? What can we do now? I mean, the problematics of the Anthropocene are that way. There’s some middle ground between the two things that you floated, between inherency and solvency — I really like the words — between illuminating, observing, or framing something, and offering some kind of approach to operate on that thing.
I like to think about it as agency. It’s not just observing and framing, nor is it just proposing a simplistic solution and coming up with all the “right” design approaches. It’s somewhere in the middle where you’re an agent — you know about both. That’s why I like working on sets. I always produce 5s or 7s or 21s because one thing just doesn’t cut it for me. And I find myself encouraging students to do that a lot too. On the one hand it’s a tactic to try to keep the discourse wide, but on the other, it’s how you gain an audience for the work. When you present one thing, it’s easy to destroy that thing. That’s the culture of architecture review, seek and destroy. See thing, find hole in thing, destroy thing. But if you produce three things, then it’s harder to do that. Or if you’re dissatisfied with the politics in a project, spread the deck across political approaches that are responsible for different flavors at different levels so that no one arrives and is completely alienated with your own political approach. If you have a robust approach, you allow the project some flexibility within the range of what’s possible, while also not forgoing making claims yourself. You don’t have to be apolitical and say “oh I’m just observing things”, you don’t have to be completely decisive and say “this is the right thing to do”, but provide a range in which you can leverage your own agency. It’s more in the spirit of what actually happens in the world.
i•p: You fielded a question yesterday about your interest in big tech. Our context is people who talk about the current socio-political culture have a strong aversion to that kind of over privatization of inherently public services. You reframed it as needing multiple approaches, but where do you stand on the politics of that question?
MS: I think there are still key moments in the whole spectrum of the growth of these giant tech companies that are alarming or appropriately “it-should-gross-you-out”. Elon Musk flew his own pretentious electric car into space. I usually find excitement in those moments when other people are thinking “That’s terrible”. But that one in particular, I thought, “Come on you can’t — you’re not going to fly the Tesla car into space, right?” There are moments like that where I do get critical and freaked out by people like Elon Musk, but for the most part I really think there’s not a lot of difference between him and other actors at his level. Trump’s one of them, Oprah’s another one… to a lesser degree, but in some ways, Dennis Rodman going to North Korea is another version of that. These actors are positioned in such a way that their image is prolific enough and their capital high enough to do these things.
Before the 2016 elections, I was one of those people who was—on a cultural research level—enjoying Donald Trump’s run for President, not because I liked his politics or because I thought he would be a good President (of course), but just because it was a special time in history when reality television was colliding violently with national politics. That was so interesting to me that culture was coming together to concoct a moment where Donald Trump, of all people, could run for President. And then he won, which put me and just about everyone else on the plantet into this existential crisis about what was going on around us, and I started to feel super sullen and guilty because I had been enjoying that half-fictional moment, and then it came to pass with all it’s violence. Since then I’ve gone through a period of adjustment; it has changed the tone of my work somewhat. And am now starting to recover into some middle ground between just rampant enjoyment of the crazy, gross culture around me and some critical encounters with the ways that it has serious ramifications that are now coming to bear on things.
To go back to the tech company question, it’s just a difficult one. I don’t think there is a right answer. If Facebook is able to track and quantify me in ways that I might not be comfortable with, even if policies emerge to better protect my privacy online, the proverbial cat is out of the bag… you’re not going to do something to “fix” that massively complicated issue, that’s going to make it all “right” again. I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier about needing to find ways to be an agent within it. In some ways (and it’s okay with me if others are less pessimistic than this) we’re all just fucked now, we just have to learn how to live with it — not just live with it, but live within it.
i·p: Earlier you speculated that these things just are, and people need to come to terms with it the hard way. Is this a belief that is restricted to your work or is it a personal political ideology?
MS: I think that living in the 21st century is about complicated relational structures and that it often refuses simplicity and clarity. We can think about early postmodernism as splintering the identity and subjectivity of everyone — as in suddenly I was able to do and be all sorts of different things, ironically completely opposed to the cultural moment that came before it. If we then cycle past the early 21st century, past 9/11 and so on, identities get extruded through all of these hyper-digital modalities and splinter even more. So, it’s hard to say what one should be up to. I just think the smarter you can be, and the more available you can be to things around you, then the better for you and the better for everyone else. Most of the work is trying to scratch that itch: what can I see around me that I’m interested in culturally and politically and how can I use it as a spatial thinker? Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t plot things out strategically as much as people think I do. I see things around me and get obsessive about them, and I just do work. Sometimes, it spills out as 5 machines that do funny things on a landscape, sometimes it spills out as 21 agents within a science infrastructure and governmental entity. It just depends on what the situation is and how I think I can best operate there. That’s just my general ethos on things. I feel like I’m on the earth to do that, and that’s just what I’m doing. And I run into problems: I run into disciplinary structures that don’t like that, and into audience gathering problems where either no one’s interested in it for various reasons or people are wildly interested in it for reasons I didn’t expect. But I’m just doing what I think I should do, what I value as an architect and spatial-cultural producer.