Friday, March 14, 2008

Reimagining the everyday

I love getting email about new research, art and design projects that address theories and critiques of everyday life!

Alexis Lloyd's paper Performing the Mundane: Interventions in Everyday Life (pdf) "explores the ways in which artists are utilizing design objects, performance, and interventionist practices to create spaces for play, ritual, and poetry in the midst of everyday experience. Specifically, the paper examines these issues through an analysis of the works of Andrea Zittel, Improv Everywhere, and Tim Etchells."

The Concrete JungleWhile Alexis' locative media projects are also interesting, it was actually The Concrete Jungle street art installation that made me smile the most. Maybe it's my love of miniatures and animals, but there is something simply joyous about this kind of interaction design. Sure some critics could dismiss it as cloying, but consider these two points. First, unlike most work in ID, it doesn't cater just to the technological elite. In fact, I imagine all sorts of gadget-less people quite delighted by small gorillas swinging from fences, and rhinos storming over parking meters. Secondly, it does not require any direct interaction. While walking down a busy urban street, to simply catch a glimpse of a tiny lion stalking a tiny herd of antelope is enough to change one's frame of mind without demanding immediate action. In other words, the intervention is subtle and open-ended. Very, dare I say, everyday life.


I love carnivalesque moments or events precisely because they disrupt time and space, and force me to acknowledge things that I might otherwise miss or avoid. But I also like to remember that Walter Benjamin characterised boredom as "the apogee of mental relaxation," the "dream bird that hatches the egg of experience," the "threshold to great deeds." In places that constantly seek to move faster, to stimulate further, the ability to actually be bored is a triumph of sorts. It means we haven't been captivated by the spectacular, that we've managed to resist the logic of efficiency.

In their Open 11 essay, Mindful Disconnection: Counterpowering The Panopticon from the Inside (pdf), Howard Rheingold and Eric Kluitenberg remind us that when we design for urban computing the important question is "whether we can develop procedures, methods, possibilities, spaces for 'selective connectivity', which make it practical to choose to extract ourselves from the electronic control grid from time to time and place to place." At the end of the article they list a bunch of interesting projects that offer the possibility to disconnect--note how some are illegal.


Returning to the notion of wild versus domesticated spaces, Robert Willim wrote to tell me about an interesting project he's done with Anders Weberg, Domestic Safari: Home as a Wild Place. They asked "What if we started to see the material worlds of domestic settings as wild places? Is there a potential for the exotic and uncanny in the inconspicuously mundane?" and eventually came up with a ten minute film that takes the viewer through three different homes in Finland, Italy and Sweden. As they explain: "This audiovisual excursion aims to call forth imaginaries and a profane illumination that disorient and estrange the materialities of everyday reality."

Domestic SafariPersonally, I did find it disorienting. There are bits that appear to take place underwater or on the forest floor, rather than in a house--and the music can be more than a bit discomforting. This is no home I'd want to live in! But I'm intrigued by the idea, and I hope they put up some more documentation. I'd like to know what they think we can learn from repositioning the domestic as the wild...

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

This winter: 374 cm and counting

Current view from the front porch.

Looking down the street this afternoon.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Layers, or the complex simplicities of the mundane

otherthings @ flickr

"This is an extreme closeup scan (2400 dpi) of a paint chip retrieved from the ruins of Belmont Art Park by Amy McKenzie earlier this year. The fragment is about 1cm thick, and appears to consist of about 150-200 layers of paint."

Gorgeous. In Technoscience and Everyday Life, Michael writes about the "complex simplicities of the mundane" and I can't help but see some connections here.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ursula Franklin, technoscience and everyday life

This term we're reading Technoscience and Everyday Life, a great little book by Mike Michael. In our first lecture and discussion on Friday, we'll be taking a look at the connections between theories of everyday life and social studies of science and technology.

"As I see it, technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any activity that does not occur within this house. All are affected by the design of the house, by the division of its space, by the location of its doors and walls. Compared to people in earlier times, we rarely have a chance to live outside this house."

- Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology, 1989 CBC Massey Lecture Series

Our objective is to begin to identify what constitutes a critical perspective on technoscience and everyday life, and I'm looking forward to introducing students to Ursula Franklin -- scientist, scholar, feminist, pacifist, environmentalist, activist, and one of my heroes.

Believe it or not, it was only in 1984 (at the University of Toronto) that she became the first female in Canada to receive the rank of Professor. Interviewed last year, at age 85, Franklin was asked if people are right to call her a radical, and she responded:

"I hope so. I think a radical means one can look and think without being prejudiced by existing structures, and remove what is unnecessary or atrophied. Itís like getting all the silt out of a spring, so that the water is clear. Thatís not a bad thing to do."

Related posts: An Extraordinary Mind (26.01.03)

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Teaching Carnival: Power & Everyday Life

So. The first couple of weeks of school have been a bit intense and weird, what with a brutal rape on campus and the strike and whatnot. But the picket line comes down today and everything on that end should get back to normal shortly. I really don't see how anyone could make the case that the uni doesn't effectively grind to a halt without its support staff - and it'll be great to have them back!

My Power & Everyday Life course is off to a good start, I think. Lots of people, over a dozen different disciplines, and they're engaged! Our first workshop was a way for students to get to know each other in small groups. Everyone chose the most important thing in their bag and explained to the others what it said about their personal attitudes and values. I saw lots of debit and credit cards, mobile phones (and quite a bit of concern about that being a bad thing), keys, sunglasses and even deodorant. All of this led quite nicely into discussing the assigned readings by Raymond Williams, Erving Goffman and Betty Friedan - and asking some questions about where, when and for whom is everyday life?

This week I'll be lecturing on the poetics and politics of everyday life, and the students will be discussing the revolutionary and creative potentials of subverting everyday life as well as conducting a quick-and-dirty postering campaign. I'll also get them going on their first assignment, inspired by Mass Observation. And if we're lucky, we'll have time to discuss the City of Ottawa's recent decision to put "We Support Our Troops" stickers on all municipal vehicles.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Power & everyday life

Sociology 2700 - Power & Everyday Life

This fall and winter I'll be teaching a new (for me) course and I'm excited. I knew I wanted to reinvigorate my long-standing love affair with theories of everyday life (it is where we live, after all) by better combining them with technosocial studies, and better grounding technology and media studies in lived experience. But on a more fundamental level, I think I was happiest to be able to dedicate an entire course to "questioning everyday life and allowing everyday life to question our understandings of the world."

As a second-year undergraduate course open to arts and science majors, the first half of the course builds a foundation by focussing on historical and contemporary theories of everyday life and power relations. Drawing on my interests in material culture and feminist theory, I wanted to concentrate on how daily living involves shaping and being shaped by the people and things around us. The second half of the course focusses on technoscience as a primary force shaping everyday life today, and how this affects our different experiences with, and understandings of, everything from space and time to bodies and objects. If nothing else, I wanted students to get a solid sense of how even the mundane and taken-for-granted activities of our daily lives involve complex relations of power where it's not always clear and obvious who - or what - is in control. (And how sometimes, of course, the powers-that-be totally kick your ass but that doesn't mean you have to take it with a smile.)

In any case, I decided to stick to the equal parts lecture/seminar/workshop structure that's worked so well in recent classes, but I also decided to become more prescriptive with the assignments. Maybe it's the subject matter, or maybe it just has to do with becoming more comfortable and confident in the learning I want to facilitate, but this fall I also sense a greater willingness and desire to put my own politics and values on the line. This should be good.

Now, that's just one of five things on my to-do list so...

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007


My body is not running to current specs. Repairs have been ordered but delays can be expected. Thank you for your patience.


Tuesday, July 31, 2007

August is for writing

After a couple of weeks of weather in the mid 30s (celsius) I'm mostly used to it, but the humidity here is killing me. It makes everything more difficult to move through. Plus, I'm having one of those slightly shocking mornings when I realise that I've way more work to do than I anticipated.

I'd like to write a short essay about my single greatest challenge during the BNMI residency: understanding how "research" is differently defined and practiced by social scientists and artists. I think this has interesting implications for collaborative work, and for how we approach creative interventions and technological innovations.

In other news, I'm teaching a new 2nd year undergrad course this year: "Power & Everyday Life." I'm currently working on the syllabus and deciding whether or not to assign textbooks or compile a reader myself. And it runs full-year so I have to plan twice as many lectures and seminars and workshops and assignments as I have in the past.

I've got two journal papers due by end of August: one for a special issue on software and space and the other for a special issue on wireless technologies and mobile practices. That's 14000-18000 words currently unorganised and/or unwritten and/or lost in dissertation.

Which reminds me I've also got a dissertation to submit. Because as we all know: "A good thesis is a thesis that is done."

So all things considered, I'm really glad that I'll be home for awhile. I want to make it back to Oslo and London in the fall, and there's the 4S Meeting in Montrťal in October, but that's all the travelling I've got planned and it's quite enough. I'm also hoping to have friends (you know who you are!) come visit.

But thankfully summer's not over yet. There are still flowers to smell, dinners to cook, cats to take naps with, novels to read, walks and bike rides to take, and garlic festivals to attend! You know what they say about all work and no play...

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Leave the house now!"

Everyone laughed last year when I made a pet emergency survival kit, but when I got the phone call from the gas company this morning, Enid and I were ready to go!

We're back home from our little adventure now, safe and sound and happy to have each other.


Friday, March 9, 2007

Biotechnologies, bodies and boundaries

These days when not writing about the politics of touch, my efforts are going towards teaching. We only have three classes left (the final one is a poster session, yay!) and I already know I'll miss our weekly get-togethers. They're an unusually good bunch who just submitted major research papers on topics like the biopolitical implications of assigning life and death, social and political boundaries for biometrics use, transexuality and the construction of otherness, mobile technologies and perceptions of space and time, genetically engineered crops and uncommon ground, public debates on stem cell research, domestic appliances, gender and everyday life, and pharmaceutical regulation of human sexuality. Totally amazing.

The last two classes have focussed on technoscience and bodies. Last week put the beginnings and ends of life up for debate, and we talked about reproductive technologies, tissue culturing, selfhood, markets, property and regulation.

For example, the case of Amillia Taylor offers intriguing insights into the practice of neonatal medicine and the regulation of bodies, as well as public concerns around the practice of abortion and the constitution of life itself. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of ambivalence in this Daily Mail story. The hospital environment is clearly understood to be more controlled/controllable than the "outside" world, but no less risky if we consider the litany of medical problems the premature baby has already experienced within its walls. According to the story, "Amillia was conceived in vitro and has been in an incubator since birth." Born at 22 weeks, this means that the majority of her life--and the very status of her life--has been almost entirely regulated by biotechnology. At the same time her survival is most often described in terms of surprise or the miraculous. Her mother is quoted as saying "now she is beginning to look like a real baby," which suggests it was difficult to recognise her as such before then. And the article concludes by invoking the abortion debate and challenging the reader to ask when but not how life actually begins: "Babies can still be aborted for non-medical reasons at up to 24 weeks. Recent evidence shows that, of those born at 25 weeks, half of them manage to live."

On a more personal note, the pictures of the child startled me. I still have a hard time recognising this creature as something bound for this world no matter how much we try to bind her to it. The medical intervention initially struck me as artifice in the sense of mechanical art, and thus wholly unnatural. But I find all sorts of 'unnatural' things to be beautiful and good and I'm having a hard time explaining why I can't seem to recognise 'life' here. Maybe it's the implication in that final quote that if we can keep a baby alive at 25 weeks then we shouldn't be allowed to abort it at 24 weeks. The problem I'm having, maybe, is that I don't think either creature is a 'baby' or 'child' at all. In fact, it discomforts me that she has a name because it insinuates her into a social world I share and I have a hard time attributing selfhood to bodies kept alive. Plus, it totally disturbs me that Latour's collectives of humans and non-humans could constitute nothing but people, or rather that we assign different people to different sides of the human/nonhuman 'divide'. Biopower and biopolitics indeed.

Yesterday's class focussed on monsters, hybrids and the sexing of bodies. One of my favourite topics because it focusses almost exclusively on what happens between categories, we talked about everything from Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, to freaks, museums and reality tv to conjoined and parasitic twins, intersexuality, body modification, disability, circumcision, cosmetic surgery (including vaginal rejuvenation and designer vaginoplasty), commodities, markets, consumerism and the ever-present matter of taste. Generally a proponent of the 'three-sex' (female, male and both/neither) model, I also keep thinking about the idea that there is only one sex and it exists on a continuum from male to female and different people occupy different positions, like if you view sexuality as a continuum from homosexuality to heterosexuality and people occupy many positions along it over a lifetime.

Anyway, now I'm preparing for the final classes on technology and everyday life. Next week we take a look at domestication and technology, which includes domestication of and by technology, as well as domestic technologies. This means reading some really interesting work by Shelley Nickles on the history of refrigeration in terms of material culture and gender construction, and introducing students to Elizabeth Shove's work on material culture, consumption and practice-oriented design, as well as the larger Designing and Consuming: Objects, Practices and Processes research project and their forthcoming book on The Design of Everyday Life. The final lecture and discussion will focus on pervasive technologies from mobile phones to biometrics, and further investigate the fluid boundaries between public and private in our technologised everyday.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

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