Thursday, October 26, 2006

Looking back on Architecture and Situated Technologies

Okay, back from NYC and all immediate teaching concerns dealt with, I'm going to try to put down some of my reflections on the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium. It's proving to be a bit difficult because I genuinely enjoyed all the presentations, but can't really figure out what to take from them. Or rather, I'm not sure there was any whole that could be taken away. But first things first, here is a copy of my presentation slides and notes:

Technosocial Devices of Everyday Life (1.01 mb pdf)

The organisers have asked all the speakers to submit their presentations so that they can be posted to the symposium website, and we were told that audio files of all our talks would be made available there too. I'll actually wait until I can see/hear all the presentations again before commenting specifically on their content, as my handwritten notes seems to be a bit lacking in consistency and coherency.

For now I might just note that Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Usman Haque's work continues to impress me, and Charlie Gere's presentation on the Catholic liturgy and the cultural importance of ritual really struck a chord with me as well (it also reminded me of some good conversations I've had with Rob and Joost). But I do have a few thoughts on the event as a whole that I'd like to think through here, so please bear with me.

For one, I learned something about myself: It seems that I am profoundly uncomfortable being filmed all the time. The entire three days were recorded by some very nice people, but not once was I asked for my permission nor was I ever told what the ultimate objective or product would be, or where it would be made available. Perhaps this is simply a difference between ethnography and documentary, but it struck me as a bit off. I'll also admit to being fairly unimpressed that I had to be interviewed on film after several drinks. (Don't worry Mum, I wasn't drunk!) But I wasn't straight either, as we were nearing the end of a leisurely group dinner after a full day of presentations. Now, I mean no disrespect to the film-makers because they were lovely; it was the process as a whole that weirded me out. Pushing my personal reservations aside, I do suspect there will be an interesting record of how multidisciplinary collaboration does - and does not - work, and that's valuable.

And actually, now that I think about it, I really don't envy the organisers for having to get so many different, bright and intense people to work together. Still, I'm not convinced that "underspecification" was the best approach given that we had so little time. For example, Saturday was spent working together in small groups in order to produce some kind of public performance by the end of the day. Several participants were unclear about, or uncomfortable with, all this performance stuff and others, I think, were too quick to dismiss their concerns as "performance anxiety" or an inability to "go with the flow." Lots of different kinds of people, for different kinds of reasons, like a bit of structure to guide them, and the extreme open-endedness of our activities was bound to unsettle them and probably could have been both anticipated and accommodated.

Having said that, I was very fortunate to have spent the entire day having entirely too much fun with Eric Paulos, Peter Hasdell, Michael Fox and Mark Shepard. In order to explore situated technologies, Mark asked us to come up with ten possible users, ten possible uses, and ten possible sites of use - and from there we narrowed it down to "stray animals," "enabling criminal activity" and "churches" or urban sanctuaries. Ultimately we devised an amusing underground network that transmitted messages encoded in dog urine. And like I said, it was good fun, but I'm not sure if or how it helped the audience better understand or engage the idea of situated technologies.

And, like all good conferences, the best moments were spent shooting the shit with interesting people. Special thanks go to the organisers Mark Shepard, Omar Khan and Trebor Scholz for their efforts and great conversation. Thanks also to our hosts from The Architectural League of New York, The Urban Centre and Eyebeam. I also have to say that this event was better administered than any other I've experienced. All those everyday things that make and keep people happy - travel arrangements, good accommodations, plenty of food and drink, etc. - were brilliantly taken care of by Jessica Blaustein of the Architectural League. Jessica is also an impressive scholar in her own right, and her interests in multidisciplinary studies, publics and public programmes are very much in sync with my own, so it was great to meet her as well. And last, but certainly not least, I very much enjoyed conversations and people-watching with Richard Coyne and others at our super rockandroll hotel.

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