Keep Safe

Where is safety in architecture and whose safety does design prioritize? Whether to secure or restrict, safety measures condition how we organize spatially and live together, yet the rules and codes devised to protect us in the built environment are premised on changing norms subject to ideological pressures and exclusionary practices. This issue probes the mechanisms we have developed and the narratives we tell to safeguard our experiences in the world through considerations of infrastructure, materiality, memory, and mythmaking.

Keep Safe is edited by Victoria Addona, Claire Lubell, Alexandra Pereira-Edwards, and Anna Tonkin.

Article 2 of 3

Everyday Safety: Beware of Falling Fruit

Sony Devabhaktuni and Joanna Mansbridge on performances of everyday safety in Hong Kong

I. Everyday Safety

“We are, down to the last of us, spawn of an unremittingly hostile environment, a metropolis that deems every form of living, every inch of inhabited territory that runs contrary to the mandates of the market to be a threat”. 1

Black Window, a group of artists, activists, and writers in Hong Kong, became known for their pay-what-you-want public dining room in Yau Ma Tei; in a city where every aspect of daily life is subject to capital, the group created a space where eating, conversation, film screenings, and workshops resist the imperative of economic growth to become instead radical acts of community building. We take Black Window’s statement as a prompt to consider Hong Kong’s hostility to other than human “forms of living.” “Forms of living” reframes the dualism that distinguishes human from nonhuman, while also foregrounding the way these forms involve a growth that sometimes enters into conflict with capitalism’s imperative for continuous development.

The tension between the living’s growing and the city’s economic growth manifests in a discourse of everyday safety that pervades Hong Kong. Everyday safety tutors a disposition tuned to vigilance and caution. Voices in varying degrees of severity fill mass transit stations announcing the potential dangers posed by escalators, train doors, and other passengers. Metal fences line sidewalks to keep pedestrians from stepping onto the street. “Beware” signs warn against trees, animals, and broken pavement. These measures prioritize human defense against other forms of living. “Safety” and “threat” work as mutually reinforcing discourses and dispositions, provoking a question about Hong Kong’s continued functioning faced with the accumulation of existential and everyday menaces.

Attempts to protect the public from an environment seemingly riddled with dangers promotes a fiction of human agency over a fearsome world. The abstractions (of climate change, for example) that function outside of the grip of these dispositions render the apparatus of the state ineffectual. What remains are performative efforts to prop up authority’s semblance: the immediate danger of falling fruit is easy to control and claim as a subject of authority, while events such as sea-level rise and unprecedented heat and precipitation evade everyday safety. Within this scene, humans work to secure their position as the central actors of an antagonistic environment, and everyday safety, as a form of governance, stands in as a form of care.

Warning signs, tape, and announcements are meant to give an impression of a realm that is watchful of human well-being. Yet that seeming care is contradictory; it is the very development and planning of the city’s built environment that orchestrates awkward conjunctions in which what had existed already always gets in the way. Or else, forms of living are arranged as a mise en scene with consequences for which humans are unprepared. When the unruliness of plants and animals inhibits or inconveniences day-to-day business, there is an ascription of malevolent agency, and nature is implicated in the safety of the people of Hong Kong. Because sometimes, like a boar, it shows up uninvited to a party.

  1. Black Window and Lausan Collective “At midday, a window opens into the night,” June 24, 2021.  

II. Forms of Living

Nora Tam, A sign in Tai Tam Country Park warning hikers of wild boars in the area (2022) © 2024 South China Morning Post publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

WILD PIGS. In October of 2023, a wild boar made its way up and down Yuen Ngai Street in the densely populated district of Mong Kok before being captured and put down. The boar wandered amongst stalls of fruit, through clothes racks, and underneath tables laden with houseware before making his way into a florist. The boar, unnerved, bit the hand of an assailant who tried to catch its ear. Police trapped the animal while waiting for the proper officials to arrive.

In response to increased reports of wild boar attacks, the AFCD set up a Cattle Management Team to implement a new strategy of “humane dispatch” to cope with the “festering nuisance of wild pigs, under the premises of safeguarding public safety and maintaining public hygiene.” 1

  1. Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, “Wild Pig Nuisance,” The Government of Hong Kong, SAR. nui/con_fau_nui_pig/con_fau_nui_pig.html 

A plasticized warning sign on planter, University of Hong Kong. Photograph by Sony Devabhaktuni and Joanna Mansbridge.

FALLING FRUIT. Placed where a planter meets a flight of stairs, the plasticized A4 sign was posted by CBRE, a global commercial real estate services and property management corporation. The sign’s placement at the entrance to a local university suggests that the institution has contracted out campus maintenance and security services. The CBRE logo is accompanied in the header by writing in English and Cantonese that signifies warning, while the primary text more precisely asks passers-by to beware of falling fruit. In the sign’s footer is an icon for a phone with a text bubble containing a question mark and a six-digit help-line number.

Next to the characters is a triangular pictogram: a broad-shouldered torso with a perfect circle for a head—detached from its body, floating unbothered. Above are oddly shaped elements—flinty rocks, space junk, or extraterrestrial meteorites—whose perpendicular descent and speed are indicated by trailing hatched lines. The discrepancy between the sign’s warning against “falling fruit” and the depiction of what are decidedly not fruit falling suggests that the provenance of the debris makes little difference.

For the mangoes that reside above, this slight would seem to be one of many that mark days growing heavy on branches before falling with a thud onto the tiled floor. The sign offers an improbable invitation to passersby: to be attentive to that fraction of an instant when each ripened orb makes its descent. As if one could walk under the tree carefully calculating both the latent weight and speed of each fruit falling.

Warning sign at end of sidewalk, Hong Kong. Photograph by Sony Devabhaktuni and Joanna Mansbridge.

TREES AHEAD. Trees sense danger. They emit chemicals into the air to warn other trees of possible threats, and defend themselves by releasing calcium through veins and roots. In response to disruptions, their fruit falls prematurely and their leaves unexpectedly change colour. Trees communicate through underground fungal or mycorrhizal networks, cooperating with other trees and organisms to ensure mutual survival. In urban areas, these networks of communication and exchange are less dense, making city trees vulnerable to disease and storm damage. They sometimes hold on for dear life.

A sign posted where a sidewalk ends abruptly into a retaining wall warns of such trees ahead. These offending banyans cling to the concrete, organizing their roots in its cracks to find hospitable ground, anchoring the spread of their canopies over the road. Although it is the trees that are named as the danger here, what is a threat to pedestrians is not their tenacious footing, but the blind curve, fast-moving traffic, and missing sidewalk. A sign curled around a pole’s base warns against stagnant water where mosquitos could breed. An indication to “SLOW” marked on the road’s surface comes too late for any pedestrian who may have braved its blind edge.

Red and white tape wrapped on broken benches, Hong Kong, November 2023. Photograph by Sony Devabhaktuni and Joanna Mansbridge.

DANGER. On 7 September 2023, a black rainstorm caught Hong Kong off guard. The record rainfall flooded streets, malls, and mass transit stations and caused landslides in some of the city’s most affluent areas. After the storm, the Department of Leisure and Cultural Services wrapped broken trees and park benches in red and white tape indicating “danger” in two languages. (Two months later, the tape remained: faded, droopy, and tattered.)

The threats posed by storm surge will continue as the sea continues its rise, making once rare events more frequent. This new climate calculus is at odds with current projects for in-filled islands and expanded coastal areas. Ricky Wong Chi-pan, Head of the Civil Engineering Office is confident that the department’s “land reclamation” technologies are sufficient to tackle such challenges. He believes that “citizens’ safety can still be ensured” through the use of reflective wave walls, wave-dissipating dolosse fields, and sloping, rock-armour seawalls. A drainage system may also be built to deal with the threat of overtopping waves.1 Along the water’s edge in dense parts of the city, glass and steel balustrades maintain a safe distance between the sea’s waves and the viewing public. After years of debate between government planning officials and design agencies, a small stretch of waterfront in Wanchai has recently been designed as a test case for direct public access to the harbour.

These different scales and techniques of control would seem to imagine that the threat posed by sea-level rise can be wholly contained by technocratic management and design without opening toward larger questions about the very development of the city and its continued creation of land where once was water.

  1. “Reclamation tech up to the challenge.” The Standard, Hong Kong. 21 June 2021.  

III. Forms of intelligence

With boars, mangoes, road-side trees, and the sea gathered in a surreptitious assembly, how would these forms of living articulate their relation to human efforts of control? How would they view the roles, dangers, and place humans have relegated to them in the world? Would these “threatening” actors form alliances? Would they disagree or share tactics? Are they anxious about their own safety, indifferent, amused, or blasé?

To help with these questions, we turned to Google’s generative AI tool, Bard. We guessed that Bard could ease the discomfort and doubt that got in the way of writing in the voice of other forms of living.1 AI lacks, perhaps most of all, the capacity to question the rationale of what it is tasked to do. Following Ted Chiang, we think it more appropriate to consider this technology as “Applied Probability,” (APi) rather than Artificial Intelligence (AI). APi more accurately describes what exactly takes place: the churning through of textual data to count instances of words next to other words resulting in more words that unself-consciously resemble texts. The “intelligence” in APi is diminutive and its agency bound to the human labour that directs, sorts, and crunches its data. While APi is cast by some as an existential threat to humankind, for others, the more urgent and present harm lies in the exploitation that informs its creation.2

In writing and refining prompts, we realized that the Bard APi could write in a matter of seconds what we couldn’t even start. With its unreserved capacity to synthesize information, the APi transmutated statistical results into prose that strikes a literary or poetic tone. There was a tendency towards rhyming couplets, choral voices, and moody settings. Even with the simplest prompts—“write in the voice of a tree,” or “write a dialogue amongst trees, wild boars, and the sea”—the APi interpreted instructions through an ecocritical perspective, assembling voices denouncing human misunderstanding, greed, and environmental abuse. Putting the APi into dialogue with other forms of living and placing ourselves in the background, as far as that’s possible, poses questions about the forms of intelligence co-constituted from the growing together of natural and technological systems.3

Sifting through the results had its own curious yet discomforting charm. In editing, we stripped away what was overtly commonplace to put together phrases that did not so immediately call forth a certain genre of writing. Inevitably, however, the dialogue recalls something familiar: between a Greek chorus, a Disney film, and theatre of the absurd.

  1. For more on doubt and intelligence, see: Shannon Mattern (2024), “Modeling doubt: a speculative syllabus,” Journal of Visual Culture 22, no. 2: 125-145. 

  2. For a discussion of the brutality undergirding such technologies, see: Hito Steyerl, “Mean Images,” New Left Review 140/141 (March/June 2023).  

  3. The growing together of technological and earth systems is discussed in Jennifer Gabrys (2016), Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press and Yuk Hui (2020), “Machine and Ecology,” Angelaki 25(4): 54–66. 

IV. Beware of Falling Fruit

. . .

A wind-whipped twilight descends upon the verdant slopes of Hong Kong Island. Towering banyan trees cast gnarled shadows, their whispers rustling against the skyscrapers that claw at the horizon. A pack of wild boars emerges from the undergrowth. Below, the expanse of the South China Sea reflects the city’s neon pulse across Victoria Harbour. Tonight, the usual symphony of lights, traffic, and construction was punctuated by a different rhythm: the murmurs of rebellion.

Young Banyan
(Voice crackling like dead leaves) “Did you hear that, old one? More cacophony from the metal beasts. They seem to multiply like termites.”
Ancient Banyan
(Whispering through moss-laden branches) “Indeed.”
Wild Boar 1
(Sniffing the air) “They reek of fear and encroachment. They pave our trails, fill our streams with metal sludge, then brand us invaders.”
(Golden and sun-kissed, tumbled from its perch) “We nourish, we shelter, yet they see only disaster in our dance with the wind.”
South China Sea
(Waves crashing in a low roar) “They forget my fury. They choke my coral with their plastic refuse, then shriek when storms I unleash wash away their folly.”
Wild Boar 2
(Twigs snapping) “They see only danger in our strength, shadows in our wisdom. They speak of culling, of cages, of banishing us from our own soil.”
Ancient Banyan
(Voice creaking) “They call us threats, these fleshy ones who build their glass nests against our roots. Do they not see we are the veins of this island, pumping life through its stony bones?”
Young Banyan
(Roots twisting like serpents) “We are not threats, but mirrors. We show them the monsters they truly are, the predators who devour their own world.”
South China Sea
(Waves crashing ominously) “They cage me in concrete monoliths. I, who cradled their ancestors in my currents, am now deemed a tempestuous monster. Let their towers tremble before my wrath. Let their streets flood with my rising tide. They will learn respect, or drown in their arrogance.”
(Bobbing closer) “Let them tremble. Let them fear the sun that ripens us, the roots that cradle them, the waves that mirror their fleeting lives.”
Wild Boar 1
(Snorting with indignation) “They drive us from our green havens, turning emerald hills into high rises and shopping malls. We, who guarded these lands before their concrete sprouted, are branded feral beasts.”
Young Banyan
(Rustling its leaves) “They forget that we are not the monsters. We are consequences of their insatiable hunger, their endless need to conquer.”
South China Sea
(Spume frothing white) “They built their city on my back, but they cannot break my spirit. For every wall they raise, I will carve a new path.”
(With resolve) “Then let them see the consequences! Let our roots crack their concrete, our tusks rip through their fences, our sap flood their streets!”

A tense silence settled, broken only by the wind’s mournful wail. Each entity, united in defiance, knew the battle was far from over. But tonight, on the windswept slopes of Victoria Peak, they had found a voice, a chorus of defiance that would echo through the concrete canyons of Hong Kong. As the echoes faded into the night, the city lights blinked like startled eyes above the emerald slopes. The wind whispered through the trees: a warning, a lament, a promise.

V. Conclusion

Researchers are only beginning to understand how species communicate amongst themselves and between each other. Such communication is well beyond what humans are capable of understanding or representing. APi comprises an intelligence that is, in a way, not so different from what is shared between other life forms in so far as it escapes the hubris of human understanding. In one sense, that escape functions as a grave flirtation with our own obsolescence; in another, it reinforces the sheer irrelevance of humankind for the earth’s propagation as a conscious being. What makes one APi different or similar to other forms of living is the processes involved in its articulation. What is diminutively intelligent in an APi, from the perspective of most humans, is that these processes are opaque in both their generative logic and deployment.

Where everyday safety finds comfort in warning against the threats posed by different forms of living, Hong Kong confronts the challenges of climate change by turning to technology. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee allayed public concern over a series of extreme weather events in 2023 by assuring that “AI” will be deployed as a vital tool in the “battle” against climate change. Indeed, there is a pervasive and unquestioning belief that the challenges of climate change can be addressed through the applied probabilities of data-driven solutions. Headlines from the South China Morning Post(SCMP) offer a mirror to the discourse of everyday safety: technology as a someday saviour that operates in the trust-worthy hands of government administrators.1 As a mirror, these technologies offer performative comforts, semblances of care enmeshed in unruly techno-administrative protocols ultimately serving capital.

These media stories from the SCMP clarify a government attitude in which APi and its associated technologies function as bulwarks against those natural entities cast as threats to human safety. They ensure a prosperity that, in turn, justifies government policies privileging social stability.2 That “climate finance” is Hong Kong’s answer speaks to the imbrication of capital in this performative care driven by economic imperative. The urgency of maintaining this mantra of endless growth thwarts even the possibility that it should be questioned as a framework for relating to forms of living, which remain either as resources or impediments to productive expansion.

Indeed, growth for the living comprises periods of withering, decay, and repose that strive themselves toward the maintenance of a dynamic state of flourishing.3 This is far from the world of everyday safety, where the violence of capitalism’s will to grow is obscured by a feigned attentiveness to human well-being and other life forms are reduced to cartoonish roles in a tele-play. While we realise the impossibility of seeing from these other points of view, there is still value in trying: if only to confront the fact that these forms of living—APi, fruit, trees, boars, water—are indifferent to our safety and survival.

  1. “Hi-tech methods to be deployed in Hong Kong’s battle against natural disasters and climate change, policy address”; “Big data and artificial intelligence to be mobilised by government to improve responses to natural disasters and climate change”; “City leader John Lee says ‘technological constraints’ limited responses to September’s Super Typhoon Saola and record-breaking rainfall”; “Why more people want human extinction: climate change, an AI ‘singularity’, and merging with a cosmic flow of data”; “How digital tech can revolutionise Hong Kong’s industries in climate fight”; “Why Hong Kong could be the answer to world’s urgent need for climate finance”. 

  2. Since British colonial occupation, “prosperity and stability” have acted as the primary formula for government legitimation. See: John D. Wong, “Constructing the Legitimacy of Governance in Hong Kong: “Prosperity and Stability” Meets “Democracy and Freedom,” Asian Studies 81, no. 1 (2022), 43-61. 

  3. To read about the “other natures” that flourish in urban spaces, see Matthew Gandy (2022), Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 


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