writing

Vital Dependencies: Bio-Art, Architecture, and the Forming of Life

Granted 2011-2012 seed funding by UW’s Research Growth Initiative

Vital Dependencies: Bio-Art, Architecture, and the Forming of Life

In recent years, the convergence of art, architecture, and biology has yielded a range of experiments that seek to generate and reconfigure living forms on cellular and sub-cellular levels.  Biological life is becoming raw material, to be manipulated, engineered, sculpted, and transformed from the bottom up; this living matter, in turn, is discretely isolated and instrumentalized to take on particular and programmed functions.  Nonetheless a certain amount of indeterminacy remains in any process that seeks to harness the complexity of life and the living.  As biological matter and biotechnological alterations more viably become the tools and trade of both artistic and architectural practices, newly malleable yet unpredictable formations of life are visualized, conceptualized and performed beyond the confines of the laboratory, drawing attention to what we can now do with and to life.

This book is concerned with the ways in which contemporary biological art and architecture, with their overlapping disciplinary trajectories, actively engage in the forming of life, and even more endemically, the ways in which art and architecture are vitally necessary to current and changing formulations of life.  Processes of generating, sustaining, and renewing living matter and forms have never been only biological, chemical or engineering techniques or technologies, but have always instigated visual and spatial, philosophical and political platforms of dialogue.  And we, in the arts and humanities, are already entangled in the conversation; our various systems of imaging, imagining, situating, building and experiencing things and beings in the world are tested and revised, challenged and expanded by twenty-first century modifications of living matter.

Attending to recent developments across synthetic biology, tissue engineering, extra-cellular matrices, systems biology and stem cell science, I suggest that biological art and architecture participate in the forming of life by positioning vulnerable encounters and performing unequal exchanges across a range and scale of materials, from organic to synthetic, micro to macro.  As a result, the unfolding dependencies between and amongst all manner and scope of matter become vital to biological life in our age of biotechnological manipulations.  Offering intertwined yet uneven correlations of matter, these encounters and exchanges are responsible for synthesizing, maintaining, contextualizing, systematizing and regenerating new and existing formations of life, as well as biological, technological and philosophical qualifications of life and the living.


Landscapes of Mobility: Culture, Politics, and Placemaking

Ashgate, September 2013

Our world is unquestionably one in which ubiquitous movements of people, goods, technologies, media, money, and ideas produce systems of flows. This book focuses on quotidian landscapes of mobility, because despite their seemingly familiar and innocuous appearances these spaces exert tremendous control over our behavior and activities. Our repeated engagements with these landscapes tend to become so habitual and taken for granted that their powerful impact on our behavior, thoughts, emotions, and actions may not be immediately evident to us. Examining the politics of place and motion is an important avenue of scholarship that can provide much needed perspective on the study of landscapes of mobility in the 21st Century. This volume proposes to focus on human beings’ embodied engagements with their built world by studying the constitution, politics and mappings of these complex landscapes. Ten chapters and an editorial preface seek to provide diverse perspectives on the ideological and political underpinnings of landscapes of mobility.

The three sections in our proposed volume examine systems of places that constitute distinct cultural landscapes of mobility. In the first section we focus on elements that make up the landscape of mobility. These elements include bodies of humans who move, buildings that move, and practices that move. This section highlights the fundamental epistemological need to study constitutive elements that move within specific cultural landscapes of mobility – and do so at multiple geographical scales.

The second section takes a further look on the politics of mobility. We examine how practices of displacement such as emigration, travel, and tourism produce a hybridized sense of place, a unique geographical imagination and a particular architectural response. These chapters show that our embodied and emotional responses to our world are based on our racial, gender, class, national, or occupational backgrounds. Four chapters in this section draws from the present and the past and case studies across continents, providing a comparative framework for prospective readers. By comparing the perceptual, affective (emotional), and cognitive engagements between people and their built environment these chapters demonstrate how place and landscapes play an important part in mediating the politics of mobile cultural contact.

Finally, no discussion of the cultural landscapes of mobility is complete without a critical comparison of various practices of representation. By examining how flows of people, places, practices, ideas, images, objects and places are mapped the final section hopes to focus on the politics of representation as well as our internalization of such representational politics. Three chapters in this section explore the role of representations and maps in delineating and reproducing landscapes of mobility.

This book introduces a comparison of case studies across the world, to include studies beyond the Western world, concerning Benin, United States, India, Mali, Senegal, Japan, Haiti, and Romania. The intention of choosing examples from these locations – as well as some chapters that study mobility between and across these spaces is to mark the transnational conditions of mobility. We have intentionally chosen historical examples in order to compare landscapes of mobility across time. While acknowledging the intensification of a culture of mobility in the present, by using examples from the 19th and 20th Centuries we remind our readers that similar (if less intense) practices existed in the past.

Essays by: Jennifer Johung, Stephen Verderber, James Rojas, Marcus Filippello, Dora Epstein Jones, Andreas Mihalache, Brandon County, Sarah Fayen Scarlett, Clare Lyster, Arijit Sen.


“Replaceable Skins”

Included in the volume:
Mobility, Place, and Placemaking
Co-edited by Arijit Sen and Jennifer Johung
Ashgate Press, 2013

Without fully celebrating our nomadic release from territorial borders or longing nostalgically for a return to tightly localized communities, what does it mean, now in light of our multiple movements and temporary situations, to be in place and belong at home? Who gets to choose to be spatially situated, for however long, and who has that situation chosen for them? Cast from any stable infrastructure for being and belonging in place, and oftentimes socially invisible, those rendered homeless must rely on what can be carried on their own backs. This essay examines body encasements that skim the wearer’s surface or reproduce the skin, and that offer vulnerable structures and temporary systems of home.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the artist and activist Lucy Orta developed individual and then multiply-linked Refuge Wear in response to the first Gulf War, the following economic recession and the increasingly ignored problem of homelessness. Individual, expandable, remarkably colorful and reflective, Orta’s body architecture seeks to make visible the forced mobility of those without homes, calling attention to the socially outcast categorization of its wearers. For British fashion design label Vexed Generation, transformable and protective garment-shelters become urban armor that mask specific bodily features. Evicted from public sites, or not legally allowed to gather in force, wearers are afforded an anonymity that in turn offers the potential for publicly visible gatherings. In a similar negotiation of visibility and invisibility, fashion designer Hussein Chalayan has created garments that cover and move with the body, then secretly transform into furniture and coalesce into rooms, protecting and transporting the structures of home. Addressing the dispersal of individuals forced to flee, Chalayan offers the potential for social cohesion both in and out of the public eye. Launched across the practices of art, architecture, and fashion design, these contemporary second skins offer immediate, transportable shelter, while also proposing new systems for public housing that visibly situate wearers within a legitimate social framework.


Replacing Home

University of Minnesota Press.  January 2012.

Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art joins a long conversation about the changing definition and experience of place that repeatedly surfaces during times of spatial expansion, from the writings of Vitruvius to network theory. Arguing that contemporary art and architecture together conceptualize spatial boundaries through performance-based frameworks of embodied presence, movement and experience, the book suggests that while place may no longer be a sustainable category, being in place and belonging at home is nonetheless possible. By emphasizing reusable modes rather than fixed constructions of place, art and architecture together propose various systems of replacing home, in which specific sites can be revisited, material structures can be renewed, and dwellers can come into back into contact over time.

Addressing our ever-present desire to be at home even in the face of dislocation while remaining attuned to current trends in art and architecture, this book brings together a range of objects and events in order to present an innovative study of the structural replacements of home, as evident in artifactual analogies of the prehistoric hut, re-usable property sites, modular and portable constructions, wearable shelters and transformable garments, and digitally networked sites. In charting these under-studied intersections between contemporary art and architecture, the book introduces a new framework for conceptualizing spatial situation that is based on similarities in the phenomenologically-based language of performance theory present in each discipline’s conceptualization of place and belonging.  By participating in these prescient, ongoing debates across disciplinary boundaries, the book presents a new way to theorize and to experience being and belonging at home within our globally expanded spatial environments.


“Replacing the Hut: Dan Graham’s Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube”

Contemporary Art About Architecture
Edited by Isabelle Loring Wallace and Nora Wendl
Ashgate, 2013

Opened to the public in September 1991 and accessible until January 2004, the artist Dan Graham’s Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube was both a usable architectural structure and an installed artwork.  In his initial proposal submitted to Dia, Graham notes that his self-categorized pavilion sculpture “evokes the notion of a rustic hut.”  Conceptually revisiting and structurally revising one of the earliest forms of human building to which numerous architectural theorists have returned over the centuries, Graham participates in the history of architectural origins through the lens of contemporary arts practice.  By positioning such a pavilion sculpture alongside the hut, Graham questions the contemporary viability of architecture’s ideal model of spatial situation, while nonetheless re-invoking an ever-present longing to be secured in place and at home.  But how can the hut, as an historical motif and a material construction representing an intimate relationship between humans and their world, function now in full recognition and acceptance of our disorienting expansions into space?

Returning to one of the first human dwellings in an attempt to create continuity even in the face of discontinuous spatial experiences, Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube engages with architecture’s repetitive impulse to situate its material advancements in the context of past constructions and spatial environments.  Yet in acknowledging this impulse, Graham’s structure also challenges the integration of prehistoric legacies and narratives of spatial situation into both modern methods of building and contemporary experiences of global displacement.  Rather than returning to the primordial hut in order to assure an abstract, nostalgic form of situated dwelling materially impossible in the present moment of its invocation, this paper will explore how Graham’s return instead proposes ongoing patterns of return, renewal, revision, and replacement that define current modes of spatial situation.  By bringing together Graham’s pavilion with the historical narratives of architectural origins, the material culture of early hut-building and the material complexities of modern and contemporary architecture, my focus is not on what the hut returns to, but rather the processes by which the return occurs and what those processes offer, both conceptually as well as materially, to present and future dwellers.  I address the ways in which various patterns of return to the primordial hut are initiated and how they continue to operate, arguing that Graham’s pavilion sculpture ultimately activates a process of replacement, in which the function of the hut is no longer to return to a past model of spatially situated dwelling but rather to continuously resituate an event of homecoming, occurring in the present and projected into the future.