In Context | Suzanne Strum



As a collaborative project, MAS Context presents a compelling mode of inquiry into “Things” as “Matters of Concern;” a way of tracking objects and relations, and of tracing connections. As I journeyed through the different issues, there seemed to be suggestions of an implicit, but unstated methodology that brought to mind some of the theoretical concepts of Bruno Latour. In his exhibition “Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy” (2005), Latour suggested the idea of a “Parliament of Things,” where objects might be thought of as a “gathering” or assembly that may act as agents to open up public conversation about important collective issues. [1]

I have sorted a number of projects that deal with both hard and soft infrastructures, as assemblages of the technological, the natural, and the social. The selected pieces “make things public” by deploying controversies and associations surrounding complex urban systems. They create narratives and negotiations around material things in the urban realm.

In Manufactured Landscapes, activist photographer Edward Burtysnky´s documents sublime man-altered landscapes and places of globalized production, consumption and obsolescence. His goal is to reveal the social and environmental costs. The most apocalyptic images were taken during the construction of Three Gorges Dam, the world´s largest infrastructural project, which was built to provide power for China´s growing industrial society. A number of urban centers in the dam´s path were destined to be flooded and disappear, as residents were paid to dismantle their own cities, brick by brick.

In Visualizing Urban Hidrology: The Design of a Wet Surface, Carolina Gonzales Vives documents some urban projects that render the historic and technological flow of water through urban areas, to reveal the hydrologic palimpsest. For the “Blue Road” project by Dutch artist Henk Hofstra, a km long street was painted blue in order to represent a historic water channel, thus making evident a part of the invisible systems and memory of the city.

In The Limits of Google, Pedro Hernández confronts the apparent neutrality of Google Street Views to reveal places beyond the camera´s eye, in this case a slum settlement in Madrid´s periphery. Introduced in 2007 as a feature of Google Street Maps, an army of hybrid electric cars equipped with 9 cameras, GPS and three laser range scanners was sent on the unending quest to document every roadway in the free world. These images now provide an immense readymade collection to be sorted and selected. Like, the artist Jon Rafman´s ongoing curatorial project “The Nine Eyes of Google Earth,” Hernández also mines this archive of the world, to critically discover the unexpected as well as to determine what has been left out.

Michael Chen´s Weak Networks and Movement Scales in Architecture, explores the relation between recent political actions, real physical space and ubiquitous social media that has revolutionized urban upheavals including the mass protests of the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignados movement. Addressing the critiques of Occupy Wall Street as a form of “low risk activism,” Chen draws on Bruno Latour´s Actor Network Theory. He defends the non-hierarchical protest model and the notion of the weak link as part of a dynamic network in constant transformation, one that employs the model of social media itself.

Mitch Epstein´s photographic project of some American power plants might be contrasted against the heroic historical Works Project Administration images of the Hoover Dam taken during the Depression. Beginning as a newspaper commission, Epstein´s work developed into a far more complex commentary on “Energy as Power,” which includes the struggle of local communities with contamination; conflicts with corporate interests and governmental policy; and the problematics of documenting sites that Homeland Security has designated as security sensitive zones.



1. I am indebted to terminology and concepts from Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel´s Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (MIT Press, 2005). In the catalogue essay “From Real Politik to Ding Politik,” Latour asked, “What would an object-oriented democracy look like?” Bruno Latour´s work developed out of science and technology studies including “ethnographic” observation of scientists at work in the laboratory. He developed the Actor Network Theory, ANT with sociologists John Law and Michel Callon. This theory treats objects as part of social networks and includes the controversial idea that inanimate things can act as agents. In recent years, a number of philosophers such as Levi R. Bryant has expanded the idea of an object oriented ontology.


Photo essay by photographer Edward Burtynsky

Essay by Carolina González Vives
Issue: 15 | VISIBILITY FALL 12

Project by Pedro Hernández
Issue: 15 | VISIBILITY FALL 12

Essay by Michael Chen

Iker Gil and Andrew Clark interview photographer Mitch Epstein, author of American Power
Issue: 5 | ENERGY SPRING 10


Suzanne Strum is an architect and Co-Director of the Metropolis Master in Architecture and Urban Culture, a collaborative project between the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).

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