American Mine

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 2, 2007)” by David Maisel].

The following essay was previously published under the title “Infinite Exchange” in Black Maps by David Maisel (Steidl), as well as in Cabinet Magazine #50.

1.
In a 2011 paper on the medical effects of scurvy, author Jason C. Anthony offers a remarkable detail about human bodies and the long-term presence of wounds.

“Without vitamin C,” Anthony writes, “we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy”—reached when the body has gone too long without vitamin C—“old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.”

In a sense, there is no such thing as healing. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds: imperfectly locked doors quietly waiting, sooner or later, to spring back open.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 5, 2007)” by David Maisel].

2.
The Carlin Trend was discovered in north-central Nevada, near the town of Elko, in 1962. Some fifty years later, at this time of writing, it remains one of the world’s largest actively mined deposits of gold ore. In fact, the region has become something of a category-maker in the gold industry today, which describes analogous landscapes and ore bodies as “Carlin-type” deposits. The Carlin Trend is a standard, in other words: a referent against which others are both literally and rhetorically measured.

The trend’s discovery and subsequent exploitation—and the extraordinary negative landforms that have resulted from its exhumation—has been a story of nineteenth-century U.S. mining laws, legally dubious provisions governing public land, extraction industry multinationals, advanced geological modeling software, specialty equipment few people can name let alone operate, and genetically modified bacteria mixed into vats of gold-harvesting slurry.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 1, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Writing in 1989, John Seabrook of The New Yorker pointed out that, in the previous eight years alone, more gold had been mined from the Carlin Trend “than came out of any of the bonanzas that feature so prominently in our national mythology, including the California bonanza of 1849.” That’s because gold in the region is all but ubiquitous, peppered and snaked throughout Nevada:

There is gold in the Battle Mountain Formation, the range that runs southeast of town; gold in the alluvium to the west; gold in the Black Rock Desert to the northwest; gold in the Sheep Creek Range and in the Tuscarora Mountains to the northeast. The Tuscaroras are especially rich. Along the Carlin Trend, a forty-mile stretch of this range, are twelve deposits. Some people believe that a much richer swatch of ore, a deposit to rival South Africa’s Gold Reef, runs unbroken under the Carlin Trend, perhaps three thousand feet down—more than three times as deep as the deepest mines there now go.

“Some people believe”: more is hidden in the apparent neutrality of Seabrook’s phrase than we might at first suspect. Mining for gold—the actual, violent excision of waste rock from the earth, searching for ore—is never a question of finding a perfect, shiny lump of solid metal and carefully, surgically removing it from the planet. Gold is diffuse. It is now more often mined as particles, not blocks or even nuggets. Like glitter, it is scattered throughout the rocks around it.

In fact, the presence of gold, in many cases, can only be inferred. The angle at which local rock strata dip back into the planet, the direction water flows through the landscape, or the complex of other minerals and crystals locked in the rocks underground: these all, to varying degrees, act as telltale signatures for the famously coy king of metals.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 18, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Looking for these signatures entails a peculiar mix of local folklore and verified science, and the hunt—sometimes life-consuming, sometimes maddening—for signs is exhaustively documented by what Seabrook calls “prospecting paraphernalia: geological reports, assay figures, maps, contracts, aerial photographs, electromagnetic surveys, gravitometer readings, lawsuits, letters from people who think they have gold on their property, letters from people who know people who have gold on their property.”

Gold is less discovered, we might say, than interpreted.

The Carlin Trend has thus served as a test site, now in its fifty-first year, for various interpretive techniques, both scientific and superstitious. Specialty journals refer to the region’s “geochemical patterns”—only fragments of which are available to them to analyze for “the characteristics, signatures, and genesis of Nevada’s world-class gold systems”—the idea being that these might be found again elsewhere and thus be more instantly recognizable. Geologists track concentrations, contours, “metal zones,” and mineralized fractures; they build models of “stacked geochemical anomalies” in the earth below, hoping to piece together an accurate model of the gold ore’s location.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 8, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Where the gold came from in the first place is yet another interpretive preoccupation. A paper—forthrightly titled “Is the Ancestral Yellowstone Hotspot Responsible for the Tertiary ‘Carlin’ Mineralization in the Great Basin of Nevada?”—suggests that the gold of the Carlin Trend is actually a thermal after-effect, or geochemical ghost, of the still-nomadic Yellowstone hotspot that once pulsed and geysered beneath Nevada.

The language used to describe these deposits is often extraordinary. We read, for instance, that discontinuous ore bodies apparently produced at different “stages of mineralization” in the earth’s history might, in fact, be “part of a single event that evolved chemically through time.” That is, one state-sized geological event—with titanic embryos merging and splitting inside the earth—delicately infused into the landscape from below as slow pulses of mineral-rich magmatic fluid freeze into spidery veins of precious metal. Or we read about “anomaly-related mineral assemblages,” millions of years’ worth of “mineralizing events,” and “geochemical halos in this part of the Carlin Trend.” Industrial descriptions of the earth’s interior lend an unexpected poetry to the act of mining.

Another way of saying all this is that mind-bogglingly large terrestrial events, occurring invisibly below ground in rock formations we can only measure indirectly—scanning the earth for hidden signatures—produce ore bodies, the excavation, dismemberment, and eventual global distribution of which shapes human economic history in turn.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 10, 2007)” by David Maisel].

In any case, the form of a gold deposit itself must be mapped and clarified before excavation can begin. The shape of the ensuing pit is not the result of frantic, directionless digging, but of a carefully controlled design process. The word “design” is used deliberately here, even if the shape of the pit is orchestrated not by aesthetics but by the needs of financial rationality. Using proprietary graphics software—similar in function to visual effects programs used in film, gaming, and architecture—the ore body is predictively 3D-modeled.

Mining, at this point, becomes less an act of extraction than of physical verification: machines and their profit-minded operators pursue the outlines of a virtual form by gradually expanding the mine’s target zones, in effect checking to see if the geologists’ models were right.

As architect Liam Young suggested in a recent interview, conducted after he returned from leading a group of design students on a research trip to the gold mines of Western Australia,

mining engineers are basically designers. They develop all these fragmentary data into models, which become the design of the pit itself. … But then what happens is, based on gold prices, the pit model changes. In other words, if the gold price or the mineral price is higher, then the pit gets wider as it becomes cost-effective to mine areas of lower concentration. This happens nearly in real time—the speed of the machines digging the pit can change over the course of the day based on the price of gold, so the geometry of the pit is utterly parametric, modeling these distant financial calculations.

In essence, Young suggests, mining engineers produce and explore speculative models of gold distribution in the rocks below ground. Using surprisingly low-res data taken from seismic tests and weighing that data against equipment availability, labor costs, and, most importantly, the internationally recognized price of gold, the extraordinary ballet of machines can begin.

This then becomes predictive on a much larger scale, as well. By constantly refining their models of how exactly gold forms in the first place, and where and how it can be mined most effectively, geologists can understand where—and, to some extent, predict when—future ore bodies might accumulate. Interestingly, these future deposits will appear on a timescale that far exceeds human civilization—so, while human miners most likely won’t be around to exploit them, it’s nonetheless intriguing to know that serpent-like veins of precious metal are incubating in the darkness beneath us.

[Images: (top) “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)“; (bottom) “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 13, 2007),” by David Maisel].

Here we return to Seabrook, who warns that “there is a good deal of poetry in these figures,” of ounces mined and subterranean veins discovered. “They are based on statistical models, a kind of three-dimensional game of connect the dots played by a computer.”

These are then treated explicitly and formally as works of art: Seabrook points out “a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the ore body, dry-mounted and framed,” hanging on a geologist’s office wall. Call it the new Subterranean Romantic:

Mining people have a habit of stretching the metaphor when they talk about their ore bodies. They say how beautiful, how satisfying, how tantalizing their ore body is, they make hourglass shapes with their hands, knead with their fingers, smooth with their palms as they talk.

These gorgeous bodies, removed from the earth, leave scars: precisely designed but roughly implemented holes—exit wounds of temporally contingent value—clearly and deliriously visible from above.

[Images: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)” by David Maisel].

3.
The very idea that gold has value is a funny thing. Aside from a few basic industrial uses, gold’s value is almost entirely ornamental—that is, it is agreed upon by financial traders and metals futures markets, even if no actual gold changes hands. Gold comes out of one, very carefully designed hole in the ground—whether in Nevada, South Africa, or Western Australia—only, most likely, to be interred again in another part of the world in a bank vault or federal reserve, where it is precisely gold’s removal from direct exchange that augments its value and its mystery.

Mystery is not used lightly. In his odd but insightful study of the various symbolic entanglements between gold, cocaine, violence, and colonial labor in South America, anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, with suitably mythic overtones: “How perfect is gold, the great shape-changer, the liquid metal, the formless form.”

This “formless form,” however, undergoes a strange—we might say alchemical—transformation, from shining metal to the rarefied super-object known as money. In a long description based on a memoir by Captain Amasa Delano, Taussig recounts the nineteenth-century process of minting coins from gold bullion:

The gold ore was wetted and kneaded by blacks treading on it with their feet on a paved brick surface after which they put mercury on it so as to separate out the gold. Then the metal was heated, becoming red as blood. To get the liquid metal to run from its crucible, the spout was touched with a stick with a piece of cloth around it. When this stick made contact, there was a flash and the metal began to run in a stream not much thicker than a pipe stem. The bars of gold formed were subsequently squeezed flat by rollers until the thickness of a dollar or doubloon, by which time the bars had become sheets four feet long. A powerful press cut coins out from these thin sheets like a cookie cutter, and the pieces were turned to receive a milled edge. Then came the weighing.

For Taussig, this process reveals the machinations “both mysterious and everyday” by which a mineral becomes money—that is, how “gold and silver coins become enchanted, material things, aglow with a power emanating from deep within.” This base matter has been transformed, given exchange-value through formal regularity and sent off to participate in a global system of monetary transactions.

Gold coins are thus but one of the “minutiae in which the supernatural is secularized”: a haunted mineral is pulled from the earth and given an uncanny second life elsewhere.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 22, 2007)” by David Maisel].

The spectral mathematics that can turn reserves of gold into abstract instruments of monetary exchange—into financial products and debt instruments, derivatives and funds—operates through a barely comprehensible carnival of surrogates flashing back and forth through the global marketplace. Until the end of the Bretton Woods system in August 1971, when the US dollar was unilaterally decoupled from the international gold standard, gold served as a reliable, universally recognized equivalent for economic exchange.

Gold, in the words of Jean-Joseph Goux, himself citing Marx, had value precisely because it could so effectively disappear into the “circulation of substitutes.” This is a logic of exchange by which Object A can be traded for Object B, as long as we agree that Object B also refers, off-stage, to something else entirely: some standard or reserve for which it acts as a practical surrogate.

Before 1971, that off-stage presence—that silent original, sleeping in a state of eternal reservation—was gold.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 20, 2007)” by David Maisel].

To say, then, that there is an “economy” is thus to use shorthand for what Goux describes as “a regulated process of equivalents and substitutions,” whereby stand-ins, equivalents, and acceptable replacements all interact in occulted reference to an absentee original. The natural hard matter of gold, artificially extracted from the earth, thus becomes caught up in a supernatural system of objects: coins, bills, and derivatives—future duplicates and doubles.

In this context, the ongoing attempts to return the United States to the gold standard—by, for instance, perennial Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul—can be seen as an almost folkloristic attempt to put the genie of infinite derivative exchange back in the bottle.

Sites like Nevada’s Carlin Trend thus serve as base points for this process, emitting endless phantasms in an economic fiction of equivalents—derivative products that refer to one another in a superstition of indirect exchange referred to as the economy—to such an extent that we might say these mines can never be refilled. Or, more accurately, they can only be overfilled, stuffed beyond capacity with the carnival of substitutes their hollowing-out has, however inadvertently, unleashed.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 7, 2007)” by David Maisel].

4.
In 2007, David Maisel began work on a group of photographs called “American Mine,” part of a larger and older series known as “The Mining Project.” These images document, in extraordinary abstract swaths of color, the emergent geometries of mines along the Carlin Trend.

Scattered across Maisel’s images is a forensic survey of cuts and incisions—wounds that will outlive us, scars that won’t go away—older surgeries through which modernity has, in effect, been created. The mines of the Carlin Trend remain unhealed—in fact, year on year, they are growing—a raw scurvy of rocks exposed on a scale so monumental that geologists estimate mines, not cities, will be the final trace of humanity left visible in a hundred million years’ time.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 17, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Vast terraced bowls step down—and down and, impossibly, further down—tracking dead faults and mineralization fronts on a scale only made clear when we notice 16-ton trucks like specks of dust on canyon walls. Discolored oceans of chemical runoff wash across vehicle tracks with acid tides. Retaining walls and stabilized slopes loom over assembled superscapes of mine detritus, abandoned shells of industrial insects dwarfed by the world they’ve helped create.

In these scenes, geotextile mats have all but replaced the earth’s surface, offering instead a deathless, replicant topography. Artificial hills, each uncannily and exactly like its neighbor, roll from one side of the frame to the other, shifting in tandem with commodities prices, their malleable geography thus forever resistant to mapping. The mines grow and metastasize as voids: storm fronts of negative space exploding with their own slow thunder into the planet.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 14, 2007)” by David Maisel].

What is of particular interest in Maisel’s “American Mine” series is its revelation of the injuries at the start of the commodity chain: planetary wounds, seemingly beyond the breadth of nature, out of which commodities have been extracted for later exchange.

The production of economically recognizable objects can thus be seen as a kind of terrestrial focusing: out of the chaos of the mine site, with great lakes clouded by geochemical effluent and abstract landforms like ritual mounds from human prehistory, pristine products eventually emerge, assembled from these heavy elements torn so roughly from the ground. Out of the carcinogenic discord of rock dust, circuit boards appear.

In a sense, it is surprising that the computers, phones, batteries, television sets, and other mundane electronics that fill the markets of the world are so free of this fallout, so astringently cleansed of the geological evidence of their own creation. Or perhaps we might say that it is precisely this stripping-away of a product’s elemental birth that gives it its later value and utility. Such products are ironically de-terrestrialized: washed of the very planet from which they came.

• • • 

I owe a huge thank you to David Maisel and editor Alan Rapp for inviting me to participate in the Black Maps book, which is an absolutely gorgeous compendium of Maisel’s work, as well as to Sina Najafi for his editorial feedback before this essay ran in Cabinet Magazine. You can see some photos of Black Maps over at the publisher’s website.

For those of you in Los Angeles, meanwhile, Maisel has a new show opening this spring—on March 26th, 2015—at the Mark Moore Gallery. Check back at this link in the weeks to come for more information.

Finally, if you would like to read some previous posts here on BLDGBLOG about Maisel’s work, don’t miss “The Fall” or “Library of Dust,” among many other short posts; and be sure to read the interview with David Maisel published in The BLDGBLOG Book.

Conic Sections: An Interview with Sol Yurick

I interviewed novelist Sol Yurick back in March 2009. Rather than publish the interview on BLDGBLOG as I should have, however, I thought I’d try to find a place for it elsewhere, and began pitching it to a few design magazines. Yurick, after all, was the author of The Warriors—later turned into the cult classic film of the same name, in which New York City is transformed into a ruined staging ground for elaborately costumed gangs—and he was a familiar enough figure amidst a particular crowd of underground readers and independent press aficionados, those of us who might gravitate more toward Autonomedia pamphlets, for example, where you’d find Yurick’s strange and prescient Metatron: The Recording Angel, than anything on the bestseller list.

Looked at one way, The Warriors tells the story of a city gone out of control, become feral, taken over by criminal gangs and faceless police organizations, its infrastructure half-abandoned or, at the very least, fallen, limping into a state of quasi-Piranesian decay. The everyday lives of its residents whirl on, while these cartoon-like groups of armed militants spiral toward violence and disaster. Yurick was thus an urban author, I thought, suitable for urban and architectural publications, his insights on cities far more useful than your average TED Talk and about one ten-thousandth as exposed.

In the interview, published for the first time below, Yurick freely discussed the back-story for The Warriors, which was the question that had motivated me to contact him in the first place. But he also drifted into his interests in the global financial system, which, at that point in time, was melting down through a domino game of bad mortgages and Ponzi schemes, and he went on to offer an even more dizzying perspective on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Dante, in Yurick’s unexpected retelling, had actually written a series of concentric financial allegories, tales of monetary wizardry starring lost, beautiful souls searching for one another amongst the impenetrable mathematics of paradise.

Along the way, we touched on Mexican drug cartels, the Trojan War, the United Nations, and a handful of forthcoming books that Yurick was still, he claimed, energetically working on at the time. 

Image from Paper Tiger, via Sheepshead Bites

Alas, I pitched the wrong magazines and, soon thereafter, hit the road for a long period of travel and work; the interview simply disappeared into my hard drive and years went by. Then, worst of all, Yurick passed away in January of this year

The New York Times described him as “a writer whose best-known work, the 1965 novel The Warriors, recast an ancient Greek battle as a tale of warring New York street gangs and earned a cult following in print, on film and eventually in a video game.” Writing for The Nation, Samuel Fromartz specifically referred to several “out-of-the-blue interview requests” that had popped up in Yurick’s latter years, asking him about, yes, The Warriors. As Fromartz writes, “despite the delight he got in its cult status, it did not mean a lot more to him” than his other books, The Warriors being simply one project among many. 

And so this interview sat, unpublished, till I came across it again in my files recently and I thought I’d give it a second life online. It’s a fascinating discussion with an aging writer who unhesitatingly looked back at a long career of writing both fiction and political analysis, a life of deep reading and even a few eye-poppingly abstract interpretations of Dante.

What follows is the final edit of our conversation. Yurick was an engaged and pointed conversationalist, and, while I was obviously just another out-of-the-blue interviewer curious about the broken city of The Warriors, I hope this text does justice to his creative and sharp vision of the world. 

So this is for Sol Yurick, 1925-2013.

* * *

BLDGBLOG: I’d love to start with the most basic question of all, which is to ask about the back-story behind The Warriors. What motivated you to write it when you did?

Sol Yurick: Well, initially it started off when I was talking about some ideas with a friend in college. I’d just finished reading Xenophon and the concept popped into my head. This was the early 1940s.

Then, later, maybe in the 1950s, I read Outlaws of the Marsh, and the combination of ritual and violence in Outlaws of the Marsh just took my breath away. Those things mixed—Xenophon, ritual violence, Outlaws of the Marsh—and, on top of all that, I had already been working on a novel of my own. I was trying to get it published and it kept getting rejected—maybe 37 times?

BLDGBLOG: Wow.

Yurick: To move on to the next step, I wrote The Warriors. I did it in about three weeks. By this time, a lot of these ideas had matured. I’d been thinking about the whole question of gangs. First of all, the youth gangs at that point in time, running into the 1950s and ’60s, had no economic basis whatsoever. They mostly came from poverty-stricken families. You remember the film Rebel Without a Cause, right? That kind of stuff. It was viewed as kind of a national problem.

However, there were also gangs that came out of the suburbs—gangs nobody had ever heard about. No sociologist had wrote about this. In fact, I was big on sociology at the time, especially the works of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, the founders of modern sociology. I wanted to write about stuff that approached reality—that was based in social reality—and that was not bound by a lot of the clichés or conventions of fiction as I knew it. I wanted to deal with a different stratum of society, something that wasn’t getting the attention it deserved in fiction at the time.

By the time I was actually writing the book, though, the whole 1960s had already started, and I eventually had a different take on it. In the book, it’s really about making a revolution, not just a criminal gang taking over the city. After all, it takes place on July 4th! But, in the book, that holiday is like a slap in the face for my characters—at least that’s the vision of the gang leader, looking at all the things that keep these people down. It’s Independence Day—but independence for whom? Independence from what?

Since that time, I’ve thought an awful lot about gangs and I began to see them in a very different way, as almost a biological formation. People make gangs—men and women, what have you. Cliques, clans, whatever you want to call it. There seems to be a big impulse there, something deeply social and political, but also maybe something biological.

I’d been thinking and meditating on this whole thing—this whole problem of the gang and what makes it. The interesting thing about gangs, as I wrote about them at that point in time, and as I mentioned, is that they had no economic basis. That all began to change during the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially in relation to Vietnam, when more and more heroin began to be imported into the United States—a chunk of that coming through the good offices of the CIA. So, especially looking at the drug cartels in Mexico today, but also looking at this phenomenon of organized crime all over the world, the more you see that gangs are essentially capitalists. Within that system, they organize themselves: they have hierarchical principles and their leadership gets the best of everything. The lower strata are just the soldiers who risk their lives and don’t make out too well.

Look at the other gangs and mafia in ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria, the Camorra, the Japanese gangs, the Chinese triads, the Bulgarian gangs, the Russian gangs, all of that. It’s a business. Essentially, there are connections between these phenomena and corporate capitalism and politics, one way or another. On some level, there are always connections to something else—some other group, level, or economic phenomenon. In fact, no phenomenon, whether we’re talking physics or chemistry or what have you is totally isolated. Total isolation, or the making of discrete sets, is really an intellectual concept. No social formation is isolated in and of itself. It just isn’t.

What’s interesting is that, wherever you go, the gangs develop their own cultures. What makes them alike is generally their structures—their hierarchical structures—and the necessity for their leadership, whether it’s male or female, to exhibit charisma, machismo or machisma. And I don’t care whether you see this in corporations, which are supposedly rational entities but that, really, are not—because, otherwise, why would people talk about the “culture” of a corporation as something that can drive it into bankruptcy or make it successful? And how is that culture different from another corporation? So, in gangs and corporations both, we’re seeing a kind of driven necessity—maybe biological—to make and sustain a culture. But each culture is different.

Structurally, things look the same, but, culturally, things look different. That fascinates me.

Also, I grew up in a Communist household. Starting in the 1960s, I went back to reading Marx. In the back of my mind, though, there were aspects of Marx that seemed inadequate as a theory. It was very Western-centered; the number of classical and historical references in all of Marx’s work was just overwhelming to me. For all of his references, it felt limited. Then, as well, I began to think more in terms of neo-Darwinism. I don’t mean social Darwinism. Leftists and liberals deny the question of human nature, but what if it’s true? So that also became a consideration in my thinking—mixing the two: Marx and Darwin. 

All of that was part of the back-story for The Warriors.

BLDGBLOG: Before we move on to other topics, I think it’s interesting how much the built landscape of New York has changed since you wrote The Warriors. I’m curious, if you were to update the story of Xenophon again and rewrite The Warriors today, if there is a different location you might choose, whether that’s a different city or a different part of New York.

Yurick: Well, I would make it global, for one thing. And I would try to bring into it questions of finance—things like that. I’m not sure, though; I haven’t thought of that. Yes, there was a political and economic connection to Xenophon, and to Xenophon’s story—essentially, these gang members were mercenaries, and they were also a surplus population pushed to the edge of society. They were, after all, kids. And they were revolutionaries, not just street criminals. But I don’t know exactly how I’d handle it today.

Again, the whole question of making a revolution in the old way—it’s a tricky one. From my way of thinking, what happened in the Russian Revolution is: you had an uprising. People were discontented and what have you. Then a moment of opportunity came along, when it was a complete breakdown, and, at that point, Lenin stepped in. It was purely opportunistic. There was nothing decent in his move. There it was. It happened. Boom. He took advantage.

BLDGBLOG: In your book-length essay Metatron: The Recording Angel, you combine so many of these interests—everything from finance to electronic writing, looking ahead to what we now call the internet, and so on. I’m curious if we could talk a little bit about how Metatron came about, what you were seeking to do with that book, and where you might take its research today?

Yurick: When I wrote that, it was still early on. Computers were not universally around. I had a friend who was a computer expert—he had become an expert in the 1950s—so I was introduced to computers and the idea long before there were PCs or anything like that. I knew, when I saw stuff that would later become the internet—exchanges between scientists who had access to this kind of stuff—I knew I was looking at a different world. I began to see signs that this was going to become a big phenomenon, one of information and the effects of information. And again, this was before anybody had home computers.

Then computers began to come in, bit by bit. We’re talking maybe 1979. What happened then was that I got tied up with an organization trying to promote the use of satellites for global education. By this time, though, having been through the 1960s and 70s, I was telling them that this was just not going to happen. You’re not going to get money for this kind of thing; they’re going to use satellites for any other purpose for the most part, maybe military purposes, maybe propagandistic purposes, certainly for telecommunications.

But I went down to Washington with these people a couple of times, and we sat in on the committee hearings. Then I wrote a piece—an essay—to sort of introduce our organization. I forget when it was—maybe 1979 or 1978—but Jimmy Carter was coming to the UN and, because of the connections of several people in this organization, somebody got my essay to Jimmy Carter’s people. He almost incorporated a piece of it into his speech at the UN!

That didn’t happen, of course, so I decided I would submit it to this little publishing house, and they asked me to expand on it. I did that, and that was Metatron.

So my mind was ranging over all these things. I was trying to think of what the effect was going to be of computers and networks and satellites, trying to anticipate a lot of side effects. There was a lot I didn’t foresee, but there were some things I saw beginning to happen—that then, in fact, did happen maybe ten years later. Things like running factory farm machines by satellite and, now, running drones over Afghanistan from a place in Nevada. Things like that.

Anyway, having been getting more and more involved in many areas, while at the same time trying to find a basis for writing my fiction from new perspectives, became very destabilizing. Because most writers—most people—just stop growing at a certain point. They stop taking in more stuff because it gets in the way of their writing. But the opposite was happening. For instance, with The Warriors, I was able to make an outline chart of how the themes would develop. I could coordinate everything: what happened to the clothing, what happened at a certain time of day, and so forth and so on. Interestingly, the form of the chart I borrowed from a business model called program evaluation. It was a review technique. So I could do this thing and it came easy.

But when I tried to do it with The Bag, it didn’t work. I had such a hard time doing The Bag. The chart began to expand and expand till it was about ten feet long; I had different colors on it; it just didn’t work right. But I was learning so much.

Anyway, at certain points you’ve got to say enough. I forget which writer said this: “You don’t finish the work you abandon.”

BLDGBLOG: The financial aspects of your work are very interesting here, as well.

Yurick: Do you mean the economic?

BLDGBLOG: Well, I mean “financial” more specifically to refer to the system of writings, agreements, valuations, and so forth that constitute the world of international finance—which, if you take a very basic, material view of things, is just people writing. It’s numbers and spreadsheets, stock prices, contracts, and slips of paper, licenses and patents—its own sort of literature. You imply as much, in Metatron, with its titular reference to the archangel of writing.

Yurick: OK, yes. You know, I’ve been saying for years to people that this is coming, this moment [the financial crisis of 2007-2009], and it’s happening now. I read the newspaper and I see it: these people manufacturing money out of their imaginations. Sooner or later the bubble has got to burst, and it’s bursting.

In a certain sense, what’s taken place—what’s taking place now—is a series of mistakes. In other words, you don’t hire the people who caused the problem in the first place to try to rectify it, yet that’s what’s happening. It’s very interesting, I think, to look at this in terms of the criminal elements that we discussed—the gangs—and to see that what they do is done through extortion, prostitution, the selling of illegal things, illegal commodities, and what have you. They accumulate money and they launder it. But this also happens at the very top levels of finance: they imagine money and then they objectify it in terms of mansions and things like that.

When you’re dealing with this kind of stuff, you’re dealing with fiction—and when you’re dealing with fiction, you’re in my realm.

BLDGBLOG: The financial world that’s been created in the last decade or so often just seems like a dream world of overlapping fictions—of Ponzi schemes and collateralized agreements that no one can follow. It’s as is people are just telling each other stories, but the characters are mutual funds, and, rather than words, they’re written in numbers. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, it’s as if sufficiently advanced financial transactions have become indistinguishable from magic.

Yurick: A long time ago, I started to write a book in which I invented a planet, and the planet was ultimately nothing but finance. I called it Malaputa. Do you know Jonathan Swift’s work at all? One of the trips Gulliver takes is to an island called Laputa, which really means, in Latin, the whore or the hole. There he encounters nothing but intellectuals building the most astonishing mental structures and doing the stupidest things imaginable. Now, Malaputa would be the evil whore.

So the planet I began to invent was a world that interpenetrates ours and it works by the rules of our world, but it’s not visible. Ultimately, it resides in the financial system in which, as you get to the center of it, its mass and velocity keep on increasing potentially. It’s the movement, ultimately, of symbols.

I realized, at a certain point, that what I was also talking about was, in a sense, The Divine Comedy. The descent into the Inferno, if you remember, is in the form of a cone—the inside of a cone. The ascent to the top of Mount Purgatory is also a cone, but you climb on the outside. Then, to move on to heaven, you have a series of concentric circles, at the center of which is the ultimate paradise, which is where God resides. The circles are spinning, but they’re spinning in an odd way. If you’re at the center of a spinning circle, you’re barely moving around. If you’re on the outside, you’re moving with great velocity.

In this case, Dante tells us that the center of the circle spins with the greatest velocity, and the further out you get away from it, the slower it moves. What does finance have to do with this? The woman who Dante idolized—Beatrice—was a banker’s daughter. You could say his interest in her was partly financial, pursued through these circles and cones of symbols. Anyway, that’s the architecture of The Divine Comedy that I was getting at.

From this point—as all of this was going into the stuff I’m writing now—I began to meditate on the question of surplus labor value. Which, as Marx said, is the unpaid part of what a worker doesn’t get, the part that the owner—the owner of the means of production—expropriates.

BLDGBLOG: The Malaputa idea was for an entire standalone novel, or it’s something that you’re now including in your current work? 

Yurick: It was originally going to be its own book, but I’m going to change that. I’ll incorporate it; I’ll reinvent it. 

I wrote a piece a long time ago for—I forget the name of the magazine. It was on the question of the information revolution, the dimensions of which were not yet clear at that point. I think it was the mid-1980s. I was talking about, even at that point in time, the speed of the transactions, and the infinitesimally small space in which transactions occur—against the space that you have to traverse either by foot or other means, like to the market village or the shopping mall or the warehouse floor.

In other words, I’m saying that finance has a space—it has an architecture. You might want to transfer billions of dollars from one country to another, but both are accounts in one computer space. What you’re doing might have enormous effects on the real world—the world of humans and geography—but what you’ve done is move it a fraction of an inch, at an enormous speed, with an enormous velocity and mass. And that has real effects thousands of miles away.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you see other future developments of these works, or if there’s something new you’re working on at the moment.

Yurick: Yes—I’m working on two things that may intersect. One is a kind of biography that I call Revenge. What I realized, in a certain way—partly because I grew up in the Depression under bad circumstances, and now I see those same circumstances coming back again—I realized at a certain point that my novels Fertig and The Bag were revenge novels. That was a theme that was not clearly in my mind at the time, but that came into my consciousness relatively recently. 

Revenge begins with trying to pick a starting point—to impose a starting point—because wherever you begin, there is no ultimate beginning. Someone did something to someone else, in reaction to something that came before that, and so on and so forth. You start in the middle of things, and choose a starting point. It’s like a lot of the things we say about The Iliad, for instance. They start in the middle of things, in medias res.

There was an essay I wrote for The Nation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which I panned the novel. But what I realized, even at the time I was writing it, was that, in a certain way, the story in that book—the true story it was based on—wasn’t just a random killing. It was a revenge killing. It was about two people who are, in a sense, dispossessed. But the person who got killed—not the family so much, but the farmer himself, Clutter—was no ordinary guy. He was no ordinary farmer, but a well-to-do guy with 3,000 acres and some cattle and maybe an oil-pumping system. He was important. He’d worked in government and he’d worked as a county agent. I won’t go into the history of the county agents and their ultimate role in making agribusiness as we know it today. But he was important enough in 1954 to have been interviewed about a kind of global crisis in agriculture in the magazine section of the New York Times.

This wasn’t the story Truman Capote told. Capote was given an assignment by the New Yorker and he went and he did it. He didn’t know or understand any of this background. He didn’t talk about the role of this guy. Not that this guy was the ultimate villain—this Clutter person—but, the fact is, he had a very key role. If he was important enough to be interviewed in a section on changes in agricultural policy in the New York Times Magazine, that means he’s not just nobody. The fact that he conjoined the outlaws, the killers—the fact that they conjoin, in a sense, with the Clutters—I think is a piece of, you can almost say, Dickensian chance. It’s like how some novelists will start out with two or three random incidents that are not connected at all and then mold them together.

I don’t know if you’ve read The Bridge of San Luis Rey? It’s about six or seven people who are on a bridge that collapses; it falls and they’re killed. What it is is an exercise in what brought these people together: what did they have, or not have, in common? Why this moment and not another moment? That’s what I wanted to develop with this, to go a little into the background of how I came to this line of thinking.

Now, one of the killers: his mother was an Indian [sic] and his father was a cowboy. The other one’s parents were poor farmers. So, here, we have three social groups expressed in these people. In the long struggle between corporate agriculture and the individual farmer, this is what develops: they get pushed off the land, these social groups. In fact, this also connects back to the old story of Joseph, in Egypt. With Joseph in Egypt, yes, he predicts the coming famine—the good times and the coming famine. But, when the famine does come, first he takes the farmer’s money, then he takes their land, and he moves them all into the cities. What you’ve got there is kind of an algorithm for the way agriculture develops: we’re talking Russia, the Soviet Union, China. We’re talking the United States. It looks different in different places, but the structure remains the same. You urbanize the people and you consolidate the land.

Then, of course, with the book I go into my own reactions to all kinds of literature, and I stop to try to rewrite that literature. For instance, suppose we think of The Iliad as one big trade war. Troy, as you know, sat on the route into the Black Sea, which means it commanded the whole hinterland where people like the Greeks and the Trojans did trading. The Trojan War was a trade war.

BLDGBLOG: The mergers and acquisitions of the ancient world.

Yurick: So that’s the kind of stuff I’m working on.

In the end, of course, the smaller farmer fought agribusiness tooth and nail, and they lost. We see what agribusiness has done to food itself, creating all kinds of mutational changes in seeds and so forth. Again, I think of the collectivization period in the Soviet Union in which, in order to win, you had to starve the peasants. That’s what the intellectuals of the time wanted, without understanding the practicality of life on the ground, so to speak. It was a catastrophe.

On the other hand, one of the images I had when I was a kid, during the Depression, was: you’d go see a newsreel and you’d see farmers spilling milk and grain on the ground because they couldn’t get their price. People didn’t have enough food, but they were just dumping their milk in the mud. These were smaller farmers—agribusiness hadn’t happened yet. So you’ve got two greed systems going on here.

Anyway, I use all that as the novel’s jumping-off point. In a sense, I’m saying Clutter had it coming to him—or his class had it coming to him.

But I’m in the very early stages. It becomes like a little race between living and doing it, and ultimately dying. I’m not rushing myself, but I’m having fun.

* * *

This interview was recorded in March 2009. Thank you to Sol Yurick for the conversation.

Do Black Swans Dream of Electric Sheep?

In just a few hours here at Studio-X NYC—an off-campus event space and urban futures think tank run by Columbia’s GSAPP—we’ll be hosting a live interview with Ilona Gaynor. Gaynor is a London-based concept artist, filmmaker, and multimedia designer.

As Gaynor explains it, her work “largely consists of artificially constructed spaces, systems and atmospheres navigated through fictional scenarios,” her intention being “to intensify, fantasize and aestheticize the darker, invisible reaches of political, economical and technological progress. Grounded in rigorous research, consultation and collaboration,” she continues, “my aim is to reveal these worlds by exploring the imaginary limits within them both as critique and speculative pleasure.”

Most of Gaynor’s work has a strong financial bent, as you’ll notice from her portfolio, whether it’s the photographic series “Corporate Heaven,” a research project on insurance and risk, the short film Suspicion Builds Confidence, or even a “fictional artifact designed for the corporate world of tomorrow.”

Her most recent short film, Everything Ends In Chaos, embedded at the start of this post, presents “a mixed-media collection of objects, narrative texts and films that reveal the intricate trajectories of an artificially designed and reverse engineered Black Swan event.” A Black Swan, in Gaynor’s telling of it, based on the economic work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is the idea that humans “are collectively and individually blind to uncertainty, and therefore often unaware of the impact that singular events can have on [their] lives: economically, historically and scientifically, until after their occurrence.” Her film is thus an attempt to “reverse-engineer” such an event, piecing together chaos from order; the film’s backstory, which is unfortunately quite hard to detect from the imagery alone, involves an elaborate kidnapping plot, stolen jewels force-fed to doves (which then escape from their cage and fly away), and an actuarial committee in charge of insuring against this event.

In another work, nature—that is, non-human lifeforms, especially plants—has become so expensive and, thus, so out of reach for everyday workers—in Gaynor’s future, for example, a single Ficus tree costs £450,000—that indulging in any interaction with the natural world becomes an experience of “unapologetic decadence.” That film, 120 Seconds of Future, is embedded below:

Gaynor kicks things off at 7pm tonight—Wednesday, 12 October—to be followed by an open Q&A. We’ll be at Studio-X NYC, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610. Here’s a map.

(More on Studio-X NYC, earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Islands at the Speed of Light

A recent paper published in the Physical Review has some astonishing suggestions for the geographic future of financial markets. Its authors, Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer, discuss the spatial implications of speed-of-light trading.

Trades now occur so rapidly, they explain, and in such fantastic quantity, that the speed of light itself presents limits to the efficiency of global computerized trading networks.

These limits are described as “light propagation delays.”

[Image: Global map of “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” based on the earth’s geometry and the speed of light, by Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer].

It is thus in traders’ direct financial interest, they suggest, to install themselves at specific points on the Earth’s surface—a kind of light-speed financial acupuncture—to take advantage both of the planet’s geometry and of the networks along which trades are ordered and filled. They conclude that “the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface” is thus economically justified, if not required.

Amazingly, their analysis—seen in the map, above—suggests that many of these financially strategic points are actually out in the middle of nowhere: hundreds of miles offshore in the Indian Ocean, for instance, on the shores of Antarctica, and scattered throughout the South Pacific (though, of course, most of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Bos-Wash corridor also make the cut).

These nodes exist in what the authors refer to as “the past light cones” of distant trading centers—thus the paper’s multiple references to relativity. Astonishingly, this thus seems to elide financial trading networks with the laws of physics, implying the eventual emergence of what we might call quantum financial products. Quantum derivatives! (This also seems to push us ever closer to the artificially intelligent financial instruments described in Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando). Erwin Schrödinger meets the Dow.

It’s financial science fiction: when the dollar value of a given product depends on its position in a planet’s light-cone.

[Image: Diagrammatic explanation of a “light cone,” courtesy of Wikipedia].

These points scattered along the earth’s surface are described as “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” each site “maximiz[ing] profit potential in a locally auditable manner.”

Wissner-Gross and Freer then suggest that trading centers themselves could be moved to these nodal points: “we show that if such intermediate coordination nodes are themselves promoted to trading centers that can utilize local information, a novel econophysical effect arises wherein the propagation of security pricing information through a chain of such nodes is effectively slowed or stopped.” An econophysical effect.

In the end, then, they more or less explicitly argue for the economic viability of building artificial islands and inhabitable seasteads—i.e. the “construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes”—out in the middle of the ocean somewhere as a way to profit from speed-of-light trades. Imagine, for a moment, the New York Stock Exchange moving out into the mid-Atlantic, somewhere near the Azores, onto a series of New Babylon-like platforms, run not by human traders but by Watson-esque artificially intelligent supercomputers housed in waterproof tombs, all calculating money at the speed of light.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image from NOAA featuring a geodetic satellite triangulation network].

“In summary,” the authors write, “we have demonstrated that light propagation delays present new opportunities for statistical arbitrage at the planetary scale, and have calculated a representative map of locations from which to coordinate such relativistic statistical arbitrage among the world’s major securities exchanges. We furthermore have shown that for chains of trading centers along geodesics, the propagation of tradable information is effectively slowed or stopped by such arbitrage.”

Historically, technologies for transportation and communication have resulted in the consolidation of financial markets. For example, in the nineteenth century, more than 200 stock exchanges were formed in the United States, but most were eliminated as the telegraph spread. The growth of electronic markets has led to further consolidation in recent years. Although there are advantages to centralization for many types of transactions, we have described a type of arbitrage that is just beginning to become relevant, and for which the trend is, surprisingly, in the direction of decentralization. In fact, our calculations suggest that this type of arbitrage may already be technologically feasible for the most distant pairs of exchanges, and may soon be feasible at the fastest relevant time scales for closer pairs.

Our results are both scientifically relevant because they identify an econo-physical mechanism by which the propagation of tradable information can be slowed or stopped, and technologically significant, because they motivate the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface.

For more, read the original paper: PDF.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

City of Gold

Gold—the price of which has nearly quadrupled over the past decade—is now being purchased (and hoarded) on such a massive scale that the vaults of New York City have run out of space to store it all in.

[Image: Stackin’ it at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City].

The Wall Street Journal reports this week that “fleets of armored trucks piled with gold bars and coins have been streaming out of midtown Manhattan” in a mass movement, perhaps geologically comparable to a landslide, of financialized minerals.

HSBC has apparently “issued an edict that it wanted retail investors to remove their bullion to make space for big institutional customers,” The First Post adds, and so “owners of vaults and warehouses across the United States have had to jump to action.” However, removing gold from the basements of New York City is “easier said than done,” they add—especially as it requires “something approaching a military operation” to get these huge quantities of extraordinarily valuable metal off the island.

The headline sums it up: “Armored trucks leave NYC ‘loaded with gold‘.”

“I have never seen any relocation like this,” says the managing director of FideliTrade. Except, of course, in Die Hard with a Vengeance

[Image: The solid gold walls of the U.S. Bullion Depository at Ft. Knox].

In fact, some massive new gold heist film should now be forced into production, set in the over-securitized labyrinth of vaults beneath a skyscraper in midtown, a kind of post-Italian-Job-remake example of urban super-thievery, complete with glimpses of the complicated overlapping spatial histories of an earlier island geography, from New York’s forgotten underground rivers (which our criminals could perhaps scuba-dive through) to inexplicable brick walls (bumped up against where the robbers’ maps only show mud). A small baroque pavilion in Central Park could be involved, or perhaps huge rooms of subsurface shelving deep beneath the New York Public Library where CGI-friendly radar equipment could be tested by our future perpetrators.

(Original gold story spotted by Steve Silberman).

Agitation, Power, Space: An Interview with Ole Bouman

[Image: Ole Bouman, photographed by Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk].

In May 2005, Ole Bouman and Rem Koolhaas co-founded Volume. Volume was meant as both a magazine and a “global idea platform… dedicated to experimentation and the production of new forms of architectural discourse.” The tenth issue of Volume was published last month.

On April 1, 2007, Ole Bouman will become Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. As he explained in an NAI press release, that role will involve “draw[ing] inspiration from the major spatial challenges of our time.”

In the following interview, Bouman talks to BLDGBLOG about some of these “spatial challenges,” including the role of “agitation” in architecture; who the real audience for architectural journalism might be; the “politics of the spectacular”; unexpected possible side-effects of long-term investment in China; public space and dialogue in post-conflict cities; and the future of the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: The new issue of Volume is themed around agitation. What exactly does that mean in the context of architecture?

Ole Bouman: Agitation is, of course, a very general category. It’s also a cultural term that has strong political connotations. In terms of Volume, as a way of approaching architecture, I think it’s good to cover that theme, to explore agitation in the present state of affairs, and to challenge the accepted formats, the accepted language, the accepted procedures in architecture. It’s a way to expand the architectural imagination in a way.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve said that part of this comes through asking why in architecture.

Bouman: Well, I think it’s very important to acknowledge the necessity of asking why in general. In a culture where people, at a very early stage of their careers, are forced to stick to their subject – or to a specific role – there is, in my view, an extreme urgency to keep asking why. Why, in a way, is a very innocent question and a very childish question – but it is also a very important question. It doesn’t allow you to take things for granted in terms of the role you play in society, or the service you provide to society and things like that. It always brings you back to fundamental questions about your presence, your role, your possibilities – etc. etc. So it’s an extremely important question, and, I would hope, a very obvious question – but, unfortunately, it is not so common anymore.

Posing it so explicitly – pushing forward this notion of why – is itself already a critical act. This is in contrast to presenting what you’re doing, how you are doing it, or – more gossipy – who is doing something. Who and what and how are, of course, very important questions, and there is a big market for those questions: everybody knows that you can make a lot of money presenting what has been done by other people. And there is a growing market now for information about the person behind the built work, the personality behind the building. But for why there is no natural market.

So we are trying to create a momentum behind this spirit, to create a market for why. And if we find sufficient international readers who share this attitude – asking why wherever they go and whatever they do – then maybe this project is sustainable in the long term. But this is an experiment, and we don’t know yet where it will go.

BLDGBLOG: In Volume #6 you refer to the idea that clients are a kind of “necessary evil.” But what’s interesting, in the context of architecture, is that magazines like Dwell and Metropolis are more popular than ever – which seems, at the very least, to indicate that clients read magazines, too. In other words, the people who buy and commission architecture also want to read about architecture. Perhaps, then, the declining popularity of non-mass market architectural criticism simply indicates that critics are not writing for clients anymore – for the people who actually purchase architecture. Instead, they are writing for other architects, and so of course architectural criticism appears to be in decline. Where would Volume fit in, here?

Bouman: It is a good question. Of course, there are at least three different layers of clients. First of all, there are the people with money who want a program to be accommodated by an architectural work – in other words, a client in the traditional sense. But I don’t think that there is a sufficient market for a magazine that would address that specific group.

There is also the client, in terms of the decision-maker. Maybe that person is not about to commission an architect to do something now, but they may ask an architect to do something in the future. And there are decision-makers throughout society – so this is a much larger group. If magazines can address this group of decision-makers specifically, then they already have a bigger reader base.

But, of course, there is also a group of clients that thinks, maybe in a more metaphorical way, about architecture as a way of fulfilling their dreams or serving their interests, in both a material way and in a more idealistic sense. And if our readership is this larger group of people – a very mixed group – then you could say that we already do address clients as the people who ask questions to architects – not just ask for buildings from architects, but who ask architects to engage with these issues. They ask architects to address larger social issues, rather than just supply built stuff. This is a redefinition of architecture, from delivering an object to a definition of architecture that challenges certain issues within a larger cultural strategy.

I think there could be a great dialogue between architects and this group of people. And this spirit and interpretation of the client is perhaps what we are addressing. Of course, the question comes up: is it still necessary to call this group clients and not just the public? But I think it is a nice way to put it: to see those people, this larger group of people engaged in cultural issues, as clients, who ask questions without an immediate budget, without pointing at a specific site, without asking you to accommodate a program. They ask general questions of architecture, and that helps us mobilize architecture beyond one specific purpose.

BLDGBLOG: So we need a new, or different, kind of architect now, in addition to a new way of interacting with clients?

Bouman: Yes – and that brings me to the role of the architect in responding to the client. This can no longer be the reactive way that most architects work with clients. In the first definition I gave of the client, the client is asking a question: Architect X or Architect Y, can you do something for me, because I need you? The output of architecture, in that sense, is very reactive. It can only be based on a program, a budget, a site, an existing location, etc. etc. – but there is always something coming first, before the architectural act.

In the other description I gave of the client, there is more of a shared interest – a common interest – with architects addressing a cultural or political issue from the angle of architecture. So there is a dialogue between different people with a common curiosity, and that can evolve into a completely different output of the architectural discipline. It gives architects a new role, I think, in the long-term, and this may even give architecture its future legitimacy.

If an art form or a scientific discipline, in the end, only boils down to performing a service for other people, then it’s very hard to find cultural legitimacy for that discipline.

BLDGBLOG: Again in Volume #6, you differentiate between cities and what you call “large congregations of architecture.” I’m curious how this distinction plays out on the level of community, or local identity – what a region full of architecture might mean to its inhabitants.

Bouman: If you don’t distinguish between those two – if you think that applying urban form is the same as building a city, or even creating urban culture – then you make a very big mistake. First of all, I think it’s necessary for architectural criticism, in that sense, to find the right words for these very complicated processes, to distinguish between two processes or forms that, at first sight, appear the same, but that are, in reality, very different.

When Roemer van Toorn and I wrote the book The Invisible in Architecture in the early 1990s, we were directly reacting to an architecture culture which was taken hostage by the politics of the spectacular. It was an effort to figure out what was behind those fancy or glossy facades which were already highly present in the architectural press – and, in that sense, nothing has changed. There is still an incredible focus – not just among architects, but among clients – on an architecture that is strongest at first sight. The second sight or the third sight is not so important anymore. The invisible in architecture, in that sense, is still an interesting concept to explore: to figure out the intricacies of the architectural profession within a larger political context.

Beyond that, distinguishing between a city and these “large congregations of architecture” may also help architects to clarify their own position, and to see how they might want to work – to help draft a new agenda for the discipline. This brings us back to that notion of agitation. So agitation can also mean: keep going, keep defining alternative agendas that are not well known – or well accepted, or that are just undiscovered – and keep opening windows for other kinds of practice.

[Image: The CCTV building, Beijing, by Rem Koolhaas/OMA].

BLDGBLOG: In Volume #8, you write that China is “an emerging world for which we as yet have no concepts” – but perhaps we do have concepts for it, only we won’t find them in China: we’ll find them within the logic of Western globalization. Do you think, then, that the economic development of China is really just a mutant strain of something that has already happened in the West?

Bouman: Well, there are many angles that could be taken, and I think that’s a good one. It’s strange that China is seen as a new world by many Westerners, a land of opportunity, a place they all want to go. Investors are also looking at China as where they would like to put their money. So, in a way, it’s very similar to concepts we already do have – the concepts of innovation, of career, of success. But also, the concept of a return on your investment, the concept of economic growth – all of those well-known elements of the Western worldview that we all share.

On the other hand, China is still seen as another world. You have to go there. You have to get yourself a portfolio in China. Or you have to start your office, or open a new headquarters there – so there is always the concept of over there, of otherness. I talk to Chinese colleagues, and Chinese businesspeople, and they sometimes openly admit that this persistence of otherness, this persistence of the idea that this is a country that is different from the West, that you can go to, or send your money to, is helping China to take over. To put it dramatically.

So, in terms of capital, for instance, if you just consider the fact that 15 years of boundless investment in China – hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in China, within a very Western paradigm of finding the best returns – is also, in the long-term, undermining the Western position. So, in a Western way of thinking, and from a capitalist point of view, investing in China may actually accomplish the opposite of what investors intended. These kind of paradoxes are hardly understood.

If China is launching a new rocket, or a new satellite, or testing a new space weapon system, suddenly people wake up – but there is this strange anomaly between China as the promised land and China as the latent rival, the opponent, the growing danger. Either people accept that China is becoming part of a larger global system of capital, and so they aren’t afraid to give it its own momentum wherever it goes, or whatever it takes – that is just the price you pay for growth. Or you say: we can no longer accept this – and this might be a moment that is not so far away anymore, a moment of regression or conservatism. Some governments will say that we can no longer go there, maybe, because we would not like to add to the power and culture of China. It’s still very fashionable to host Chinese festivals and to invite Chinese artists and to buy Chinese art – but the moment might not be so far away when we ask: why would we pay for China? If it reinforces or strengthens their power?

I feel sometimes that we are just a little bit away from the moment when this paradox, this anomaly, will erupt into a more existential question. What do we do? Do we keep adding to the strength of China? Or do we go back to this kind of Western chauvinism, or nationalism, and not allow architects, for instance, to work in China or to allow Western investors to invest in China?

I think, in the work of Rem Koolhaas, for instance, this anomaly is almost already on the surface. On the one hand there’s this admiration of the great architect with an incredible track record who goes to build in China, who creates a new monument, a kind of signal of what architecture can do, an incredible achievement. On the other hand, there is this latent, almost open criticism: what does this do for China? Are we giving away our assets to the enemy? I think in the whole discussion around the CCTV Building you see this tension between chauvinism and internationalism, between western interests and the interests of globalization in general, and many other dialectics in the debate being played out through that specific building. That’s why the building is so interesting. As a metaphor, it represents much more than just the fact that it is built for an institution of Chinese power by a powerful western architect; it also reveals something that has to do with the dynamics of our culture – and where architecture can do that, then architecture is gaining in legitimacy.

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in your work – and Volume’s work – with cities like Beirut, Ramallah, and Prishtina. Could you tell me a bit more about the role of architecture and urban design in so-called conflict zones?

Bouman: Well, first of all, there are many people there who need help – so it’s a very direct appeal to do something for people who may need you. I don’t have money, and I don’t have power, and I don’t have political influence – but what I can do, together with many other people, is, first, to acknowledge the need for cultural discourse. Very often all the discourse that is left to those people in post-conflict cities is about everyday needs, or maybe some rebuilding of political institutions; but culture is always at the end of the story, at the end of the line. What we can do is provide them with discourse, give them a certain vitality, as we did in Ramallah once, in Bosnia once, in Vilnius once – and even as we did at the feet of the Statue of Liberty once. If a city is in trouble, sometimes it’s good to organize dialogue, regardless of the subject matter – dialogue as a goal in itself.

Of course, the second stage is the content – the subject matter of the dialogue. And for cities like Beirut or Prishtina, a very obvious subject matter is reclaiming the public domain. If there is a situation, as there is in many post-conflict cities, where political parties are extremely weak or even nonexistent, and where private citizens, sometimes criminals, have taken over the public domain because no one feels responsible – there are no owners, so to speak – then it is good to arrive quickly, and to figure out what the public domain can mean in that city.

Beirut, especially now, seems to be a culture that is divided among factions. We’re trying to set up some projects in Beirut, and in the entirety of Lebanon, to specifically address the question of public domain. Or in Prishtina, for instance, there is an incredibly strong tendency to let the public domain be grasped not just by private interests, but by mafia, by criminals. So real estate is no longer an off-spin of the need to build; real estate becomes a modality of corruption, or an exemplification of corrupt wheelings and dealings.

In that sense, it is important to be there, and to acknowledge the work of local architects, designers, civil servants: what they are doing is extremely important, and can be a model for a global discourse. It can be something that we learn from all over the world – because there are so many of those cities, and there is an increasing amount of those cities, that need to learn these lessons.

So we try to go there, to acknowledge the problems, sometimes to help – with just ideas – and to give it exposure; but also to give the local protagonists a certain momentum by connecting them to the international discourse. And if you live in Beirut, or Prishtina, or Ramallah, it might be an incredible thing to feel connected to a more general international discourse.

BLDGBLOG: When you go there, who exactly are you networking with? Architects? Civil servants?

Bouman: When we decided to go to these places and to organize a dialogue there, we started a practice called RSVP Events. We published an invitation to participate, and we just mentioned the place and the date and the subject matter. People who felt responsible, or who were interested, and who might show up on that date, could react by way of email. After collecting the people who might be interested, we started an email dialogue with this group. And the background of those people was always different – you might find an activist group, or a cultural institution, or a student association, or a school, and they would turn out to be the main provider of content, or the main provider of people, to help. So it’s always different.

In Ramallah, we did a conversation with an organization specifically responsible for heritage in Palestine – in the West Bank – which was a very unexpected turn of events. In Zagreb we worked with a group of students. In Vilnius we were at an art museum. It’s really not fixed – it’s an open system – and it should be that way.

We are trying to set up a new series this year, and, like Beirut and Kosovo, we are planning on going to Ulaanbaator, to Chennai, to Taichung, to Tijuana – different places in borderline situations – and I’m very curious who will eventually help us. We have no institutional connections yet, but we need some; that will help us find a larger audience. We urgently need, always, the email lists, and the local groups that may sustain an event like that.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, as far as your new job goes – becoming Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute on April 1, 2007 – what are your specific plans?

Bouman: [laughs] That’s a huge question – and it’s a question I’m still in the middle of answering. I haven’t found the words for it yet.

Mainly, my role there will be in the spirit of taking architecture as a cultural medium, not just as a profession – taking architecture as a way of thinking, as a metaphor for society, as a medium for culture, and as a very rich historical discipline that can address larger issues. Architecture is more than just serving the spatial needs of society, or providing technical solutions by professionals. Architecture is done by professionals, but that shouldn’t inhibit it to ask the questions of an amateur – very open, curious questions that are larger than just the service, or the facilities, the professional interests of that discipline.

Most of the time, when you find a podium, it is outside the discipline – and, as I said, that’s still successful – but I often wonder why architecture doesn’t seize the opportunity to make itself much more legitimate – more useful, in a way. I think presenting architecture as a potential, a capacity, to pose big questions and to draft agendas that are larger than architecture itself might be a good characterization of things I have in mind.

• • •

With special thanks to Benedict Clouette, of Columbia University’s C-LAB, for setting this interview up and assisting me with images (all unlabeled images come from Volume); and to Ole Bouman for taking the time to talk.