In absence of...everyday truths
Jordan Kinder, Endriana Audisho, and Michael Moynihan on incomplete representations
This article is the third in our “In absence of…” series, authored by the participants of our 2019 Toolkit for Today and introduced by Rafico Ruiz in this primer. In the following, Jordan Kinder reflects on the cartographic aesthetics of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline proposal, Endriana Audisho addresses a contemporary history of mediatized conflict, and Michael Moynihan considers systems diagrams from the van Ginkel Associates fonds.
In absence of…a cool future
“The Black Corpse of the Sun” is one of the names [Reza] Negarestani gives to oil in his book. It makes me think about the color of oil. I saw it get spilled. Nothing can be compared to the blackness of it. The oil is ultra-black.1
Collisions between the past and present in the geologic era that some choose to call the Anthropocene are determining relations for our collective future. These determinations certify that, simply put, our future will likely be hot, rather than cool. June 2019, for instance, proved to be the hottest June in recorded history. At the time of writing this, July had become the hottest month on record. This heat we experience today is the result of the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions from the past. We are, in other words, living each day not “in the heat of the moment,” as Andreas Malm puts it, but in “the heat of this ongoing past.”2 Archives come into view as spaces to address this ongoing past and to pivot away from this determinant future; they are traces of a past whose future may not have been realized, offering a space for speculation.
Produced in the early 1970s by van Ginkel Associates Ltd. for Canadian Arctic Gas Ltd., a consortium of North American oil companies responsible for the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline, the map above details the territory and waterways from which the pipeline would originate. It is a cartography that, in anticipation of an infrastructural inertia culminating in the creation of an energy corridor, transcribes a landscape into one legible to the forces of extractive capitalism. In constructing this map, van Ginkel Associates Ltd. propelled the colonizing forces of the fossil economy. The map’s medium—ink on film—is one suited to reproduction and manipulation under a watchful extractive gaze.
Transitioning from black to blue in its final printed copy, the waterways become representationally unspoiled despite the potential pipeline’s contribution to a propulsion of carbon lock-in. The archive, when read against itself, offers a speculative counter-fiction to this smooth transition from ultra-black to ultra-blue. One future that this map offers is of a planet of contamination that runs as deep as the ink that marks the film. This is precisely what is so unsettling and intriguing about the map—its colouration activates a latent petrocultural imaginary as we impulsively read oil onto it. Is that water, or oil? Our present and future are conditioned by this speculative pressure point of petrocultural saturation, as all waterscapes are now, in many ways, contaminated ones. Tailings ponds, acidified oceans, lakes with harmful algal blooms, and microplastics massively distributed across the ocean all serve as indexes of this reality. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline bears an absent presence in the Canadian nation state’s energy imaginary—it haunts the northern landscape in a cycle of proposals that has set an eventual construction date of 2022, although its actual construction is generally seen as unlikely.
The fossil economy has been and always will be a necropolitical project, and it continues to expand with or without the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline’s contribution. At first glance, the persistence of the proposed pipeline may read as politically immobilizing, but the perpetual uncertainty of its future is simultaneously activating for those of us who wish to halt the growth of the fossil economy and its necropolitical agenda. What would it take to delay the construction of every new piece of fossil fuel infrastructure indefinitely—to set into motion a future that is not quite cool, but not fully warmed either?
• Coulthard, Glen. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
• Cowen, Deborah. “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance.” Verso blog, 2017.
• Demos, T.J.. “Blackout: The Necropolitics of Extraction.” Dispatches 1, 2018.
• Malm, Andreas. The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. New York: Verso, 2018.
• Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
• Timofeeva, Oxana. “Ultra-Black: Towards a Materialist Theory of Oil.” e-flux 84, 2017.
• Weeks, Maya. “From the Waterline.” Canadian Art, 2018.
• Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
In absence of…visual truths in times of conflict
From Cable News Network’s (CNN) 24-hour live coverage of the Gulf War in 1991, to the more recent Arab Spring of 2010-2012, the aestheticization and mediation of conflict through the digital screen has challenged representations of architecture and the city. CNN’s live broadcast of the Gulf War materialized the city of Baghdad through the language of resolution upon the screen. Veiling the city with a grainy phosphor-green night-vision filter, the images possessed an “eerie, remote control quality,”1 making it difficult to distinguish between reality and its simulated representation of the city. More recently, the use of social media during the Arab Spring circulated a continuous, yet conflicting, narrative of the city across personal devices. Ironically, the increase in screens and resolution has not necessarily produced visual truths. Rather, the saturation of sources has constructed an environment of impossibility–“impossibility of absorption, control, limit, and content.”2 These screen conflicts have, therefore, become the very site of political contestation as they raise questions of legitimacy. The absence of visual truths in times of conflict provokes a redefinition of the role that images play when constructing accounts of architecture and of the city: how has visual evidence been exercised to challenge silenced, hegemonic, or dominant narratives?
Assembling visual evidence is a critical methodology today, especially to a generation of historians and researchers who are visually literate. In Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images As Historical Evidence, historian Peter Burke claims that images sit alongside literary texts and oral testimonies as valid forms of historical evidence. While supporting the use of images, Burke points out that we must always situate the testimony of images in a context, or better, “in a series of contexts in the plural.”3 Working in the plural allows for comparison, either highlighting affinities, exposing absences, or constructing new associations. For example, Aby Warburg’s 1924 Mnemosyne Atlas, which comprises of close to a thousand images from everyday sources, including newspapers, books, and magazines, could be described as a tool both for gathering traces of everyday life and for spatially re-arranging these realties. In Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science, Georges Didi-Huberman states that Warburg had invented a mode of presentation that acted both as an “analytical space…founded on a search for truth”6 during a time of narrative crisis, while simultaneously allowing these images to speak for themselves, as their assemblage through the technique of montage “would let new connections or affinities between certain images rise to the surface.”5 The Mnemosyne Atlas, therefore, mediates a tense relationship between the record and the possibility of an alternative.
The reliance on evidence collection, particularly in our post-truth context, has seen a rise of architectural practices that employ forensic methodologies. Most notable is the work of Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group led by the architect Eyal Weizman that investigates state and human rights violations. Forensic Architecture collects evidence through a range of sources from the field and our complex contemporary mediaspace, assembles the fragmented material into a decisive narrative, and presents cases to forums, often courts of law. The collection of visual evidence, in particular, has played a critical role in helping rendering the violence or crimes within these cases. For instance, in their investigation of the 2014 bombing of Rafah, Forensic Architecture was denied access to the Gaza Strip and consequently relied heavily on open-source information, such as first-hand images and videos shared online by the citizens of Rafah, to determine the location and extent of the bombings. Through the comparison of the shapes of smoke clouds, analysis of shadows, and identification of built forms, the visual material was geolocated in a digital model of Rafah. The overlapping frames not only locate the site of the bombing and reconstruct a montage of the event but materialize what Amnesty International identified as a war crime. By rendering visible that which was inaccessible, the assemblage of visual evidence gave agency to a site that is otherwise heavily controlled, filtered, contested and, in this case, silenced.
Forensic Architecture’s expanded form of practice has redefined the state of narrative construction, and therefore representations of architecture and the city. Their methodology recognizes the critical role that visual evidence can play in current and post-conflict zones, specifically through the construction of counter-narratives. However, as Burke highlights in Eyewitnessing, we need to be aware of how these “mute witnesses” are translated.6 The act of reading these images is complex, as margins for error are intrinsic to translation processes. Furthermore, we know that images are not pure documents. They crop as much as they reveal information, and their implications might hold different values across time. Images might be “mute” at a particular moment, but can still play a future role. They hold future histories and, therefore, how they are displaced and where they are archived is just as important as their current use in narrative construction. In the absence of visual truths in times of conflict, this is an urgent call to not only see in new ways, but to think of truth in the plural–past, current, and future truths.
“The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, 28 January 1991: 21. ↩
Peter Bandeira and André Tavares, eds., Floating Images: Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Wall Atlas (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2012): 10. ↩
Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images As Historical Evidence (London: Reaktion Books, Limited, 2014): 187. ↩
Georges Didi-Huberman, Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018): 230. ↩
• Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
• Burke, Peter. Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images As Historical Evidence. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.
• Campt, Tina. Listening to Images. Raleigh-Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
• Didi-Huberman, Georges. Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.
• Dufour, Diane and Chistian Delage, Thomas Keenan, Tomasz Kizny, Luce Lebart, Jennifer Mnookin, Anthony Petiteau, Eric Stover, and Eyal Weizman. Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence. Paris: Editions Xavier Barral, 2015.
• Elias, Chad. Posthumous Images: Contemporary Art and Memory Politics in Post-Civil War Lebanon. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.
• Franke, Anselm and Eyal Weizman. Forensis. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014.
• Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
• Mitchell, J.T., William. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
• Virilio, Paul. Desert Screen: War at the Speed of Light. London: The Athlone Press, 2005.
• Virilio, Paul. A Landscape of Events. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
In absence of…reality
The image above, with its colourful flowing lines and neatly aligned, handwritten columns, is a conceptual diagram for the design of an airport. This document—and hundreds just like it—was created by van Ginkel Associates Ltd., who referred to these diagrams as a “systems approach” that they continued to use throughout the 1960s and 70s to conceptualize their design work. In a 1968 issue of Architectural Record, Sandy van Ginkel said, “the systems approach is, of course, not exclusively for airports,” a sentiment exemplified a year earlier in a systematic diagram of “Indian Problems in Canada” in which van Ginkel Associates Ltd. suggests “Lack of Motivation” as a central problem in “Indian Culture.”
Putting aside the content of their analyses, these documents do a significant job of showing the variety of ways—from airports to anthropology—that systems had become a tool for abstracting and approaching complex problems. Although this airport was intended to be built in Montréal, the abstracted understanding of space allowed the architects to easily translate this design into a series of other airports throughout Latin America and the Caribbean such as in Venezuela, Jamaica, and Brazil.
This approach aligns with discourses developed in the social sciences or architecture in the 1960s and 70s. As Ludwig von Bertalanffy said in his influential book General Systems Theory, “systems [were] everywhere.” This is particularly true in the discourse of development, where the use of systems analysis had become an essential methodology for economists, politicians, and technocratic elites promoting strategies of national development all over the globe. Arturo Escobar has argued that in these decades, “development had achieved a status of certainty in the social imaginary” and he names the distancing effects achieved through “systems and feedback mechanisms” as one of the means by which academics and experts continued to push development even when most people’s conditions did not improve. “Reality,” in Escobar’s words, “had been colonized by the development discourse.”1
When viewing systems diagrams in an archive, the historian risks compounding this distancing effect, foreclosing an understanding of how history is created through everyday life. The very nature of the way an archive collects documents—the appraisal of which and whose documents have value—makes it difficult to conceive of how space is produced at a local, meaningful level. Often absent in both systems and archives alike are the voices of local neighborhood organizations and solidarity movements. For example, many groups formed in reaction to the large development projects—like the airport designed by van Ginkel Associates Ltd. for Salvador, Brazil—to directly oppose the state’s encouragement of international investment which, they feared, would aid efforts of repression and regulation. It could be argued that these local actors, rather than passive victims whose lives were defined by systematic social models or top-down political policy, often drastically influenced the direction, pace, and outcome of development decisions.
Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The making and Remaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995): 5. ↩
• Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and the Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
• Rindzevičiūtė, Eglė. The Power of Systems: How Policy Sciences Opened Up the Cold War World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.
• Massey, Doreen. For Space. London: SAGE, 2005.
• van Ginkel, H.P. Daniel. “The Systems Approach: a working tool for airport design,” Architectural Record, August 1968.
• von Bertalanffy, Ludwig. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York: George Braziller, 1969.