The Open Letter and the Spreadsheet

The Open Letter and the Spreadsheet. © Bobby Joe Smith III.

 

Conversation between Laida Aguirre, Gary Riichirō Fox, Jia Yi Gu, and Cyrus Peñarroyo

 

A Conversation on Spreadsheets and Open Letters brings four architectural historians and designers together in conversation about accountability practices within digital spaces. Exploring the formats of open letters, spreadsheets, and list-making as sites of intervention to address individual and institutional failures, the group considers how digital vigilantism is unfolding in the contemporary field of architecture, while simultaneously documenting digital ephemera vis-á-vis the conversational record.

 

How is digital vigilantism practiced and what form does it take in architecture? In 2017, after the release and wide circulation of the Shitty Architecture Men’s List, it took the form of spreadsheets, transforming systems of accounting into systems of accountability. In 2020, as the ethos of Black Lives Matter tore through architectural institutions, accountability took the form of open letters and signatories circulating between institutions and individuals. In the following conversation between Laida Aguirre (LA), Gary Riichirō Fox (GRF), Jia Yi Gu (JYG), and Cyrus Peñarroyo (CP), two architectural historians and two architectural designers come together to address media-based practices of accountability and how the recent digital “scriptural economy” (i.e. the everyday practices of writing, signing, naming, recording) have become critical components to the architectural movement addressing anti-Blackness in architecture. The conversation touched on two digital vigilante practices in architecture through their formats: the open letter and the spreadsheet. Can attention to the details of this practice via formatting, signing, and naming also address larger questions tied to politics, agency, and authorship? Can we understand spreadsheets and letter formats to be determining structures that carry efficacy and (re)distribute power?

To surface small-scale interactions, habits, and invisible formats means paying attention to the details and the small units that constitute our accountability practices, insisting that formats (and their effects) do in fact add up to something more.

 

JYG: Open letters and spreadsheets share the same motivations—they are systems of accountability that have emerged on the Internet in the past few years that attempt to hold architecture accountable for invisible or unspoken transgressions. I am interested in discussing the narratives produced by these types of digital documents, how they became the literary sites of advocacy, activism, and student organizing, and why. In particular, I am interested in the kinds of agency and narrativity that are produced through the making of documents, through formatting. In 2020, open letters became the format of exchange in calls for accountability within architectural institutions. Two years ago, spreadsheets were the sites of accountability.1 So maybe we can start there, a comparison between spreadsheets and open letters. Part of this conversation is to enter these practices into a record because their ephemerality as digital letters also make them susceptible to disappearing. To witness these letters was to witness an institutional conversation, a conversation that felt very much like people talking to one another, but they were also carefully adopted speech acts.

 

LA: I am going to draw a parallel between letters and zines. Zines were accessible. They were made with tools that were readily available; you just needed a printer and a typewriter, not even a computer. They were the underbelly of a conversation that was hovering in more official avenues. Zines presented a subversion of more mainstream conversations, and because they weren’t published in official channels, zines were allowed to be more specific, contrarian, and self-reflective. Because there was no larger oversight, they were able to become a direct reflection on the conversation going on rather than something scripted. The letters similarly felt like a subset of more official conversations, and if you add hierarchy in our time of precarity, those official conversations can become scary. The first thing one thinks about is the kind of damage that those conversations can do to you or your friends’ careers. So instead, you create back channels that then have a very public moment, but they are produced through sub-tools, or more accessible lines of communication.

 

GRF: It is useful to draw out these official and alternate channels of communication as political acts. If we think about the longer history of open letters—let’s say before the advent of the Internet—they would have to be understood as tools to surface those conversations in and through “official” channels. The publication of an open letter in The New York Times in the 1960s, for example, would at least purport to do exactly that: bring sub-conversations to light. But it is important to push back on this idea: only some are given the privilege of publishing open letters in The New York Times in 1960. This is evidence of the persistence of a closed conversation that is signaling the ethos of a more open conversation. The current situation of online sharing and circulation operates in very different terms. Tied to this longer history is this weird inversion where the term, the idea of the open letter, persists, and yet it perhaps operates very differently in the current context to how it operated in a previous historical moment.

 

JYG: The fluidity of the circulation system itself is political. That the letters, because they can be proliferated, shared, and distributed with a tap, begin to open to systems of accountability outside of the institutions that they are speaking to. The letters always seemed to address two readers—the institutional and the public.

 

LA: Yeah, they are cooked in as they circulate through the less official channels, bursting in to directly address the official currents. They have this quality of bursting. They just show up one day.

 

CP: I am not sure which letter I saw first—I think I saw fragments that were initially circulated or posted through Instagram. It felt like the actual artifactual letter appeared later. Stories or demands emerged first through individual accounts that were eventually organized into a single document. I found that really interesting because it felt like the network of statements and emotions expressed on social media helped give each letter its form, its power.

 

JYG: You also felt like you were following conversations in real time, and I constantly felt psychologically fragmented. I would be doing one thing and then suddenly I find myself reading a letter from within its own conversational space.

 

GRF: That feeling was especially true for me in the context of the spreadsheets rather than the letters. When you click a link and see seventeen anonymous Google Anteaters, you know exactly where in the document they are, you know where their cursor is, you see them typing in real time, and you sense collective action unfolding. This kind of unfolding, or accounting, in real time felt powerful and yet also immediately lost somehow. Jia, you have alluded to the longer ephemerality of these documents; one can no longer access the Shitty Architecture Men list, for example. I think that is not an accident but precisely the result of this process of bursting through and then fading away.

 

JYG: Let’s talk about the function of names vs the act of naming people and how they work as systems of accountability. The Shitty Architecture Men list was circulated several years ago then removed after what I understand to be a threat of legal action. It was anonymous yet focused on naming people—bad actors. The open letter was not anonymous but was also a system of accruing names, this time in support of Eva Franch i Gilabert for example. Could we talk a little bit about that? Who gets named? How do names function here?

 

LA: I think it is huge. The spreadsheets and the open letter were so opposite of one another. If we see the spreadsheet as an actual datafying of people—essentially just creating lists and numbers—it reduces the subjectivities of experience or humanity. That is the realm of the spreadsheet in its conception. Rather than datafying, what if we consider the data on the spreadsheet as something post-identity, meaning it is inconsiderate of the nuance and complexity of being human? But the open letters actually became the opposite. They became a commodification of the list, attaching value to identities.

 

JYG: Because the spreadsheet turns people into units for classification, and you are saying that quantifying identities flattens them. And the list does a similar thing.

 

LA: The list quantified hype as they visualized one’s network or clout. And every name on that list quantified identity. It seemed like the letter’s impact was its attempt to add value to itself through its heavyweight roster. That seemed like a dare in a way. But it was a document that, to me, visualized somebody’s abstract network.

 

JYG: Let’s discuss the format of the open letter and the idea of a reader—specifically how the spreadsheet and the open letter produce different kinds of readers.

 

GRF: My immediate thought is that the spreadsheet can only be engaged at the level of ctrl+F: I am searching for a specific name, an institution; I am not reading each of the five hundred entries in sequence. You are engaging the spreadsheet to confirm or somehow complicate your own experience or the experience you assume others to have had. Whereas the letter takes a narrative form that, ostensibly, you would read from beginning to end. You would be engaged very, very differently. The letters also enter the world as almost fixed documents and there is something completely different at stake in that closed process.

 

CP: Exactly. The spreadsheet is designed to be updated by cell as information comes through and not in a way that seems linear. The spreadsheet anticipates change.

 

GRF: This might suggest the demand for some form of closure where the data and the spreadsheet become visualized or narrativized in some way that makes them actionable. So instead of five hundred unrelated data points, shitty dudes in this case, how can we get to a point where data becomes narrative, becomes information, where we can say “these are the centers from which these shitty dudes have disproportionately emerged?” I don’t know what that would look like or what that would do. But if we have long known that there are shitty dudes in architecture, beyond listing them, where and how can we be effective in a systemic way? “Accountability” holds together a number of disparate ideas, to my mind, namely accounting and accountability. In terms of the former, the thinking goes: if we could just enumerate all the shitty things that happened, if we could enumerate the salaries and wages that adjuncts are getting paid at different institutions, if we could enumerate the BIPOC studios, if we could produce a collective reading list. There is a clear sense that enumeration is itself a value. But I think the other aspect of accountability gets us back to this notion of narrativity: to give account for, to offer explanation. I think the challenge remains that enumeration has thus far been the focus, but the accounting for has yet to fully happen. In the GSAPP Black Student Alliance statement on the futility of listening, for example, they clearly point out that the proliferation of bureaucracy via countless listening sessions and endless subcommittees on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are merely ruses for the institution to say, “Oh look, we are doing this work” without actually having to do it.

 

LA: Within the neoliberal institution, data essentially played two roles. It proves that the institution has passed identity, creating this performance around numbers that ultimately takes shape as DEI programs. It’s like data washing through campaigns which say, “we are doing things and here is the data to show for it,” but really there is nothing substantial.

 

JYG: Harvesting data from communities can be an alienating mechanism that only major organizations or institutions can implement and claim to utilize. It turns people and relationships into data.

 

LA: It’s like an institutional shadow game in order to avoid the thing itself. If you can name the data, you don’t need to name racism in itself. You don’t need to name the identity-based hot topic or the thing that evokes emotions and personal positions.

 

CP: Letters and spreadsheets compel different actions. Do these formats produce their own readers and responders? I am also thinking about how the word “demand” was rhetorically deployed. In the letter written by Michigan students, the word “action” was used instead of “demand.” This change of language might itself initiate different forms of action.

 

GRF: Some of the open letters compelled institutions to at least produce written responses. It is clear that this isn’t enough, but it is at least some form of response. I don’t know that the spreadsheets produced any immediate consequence or action. I wonder if the anonymity of the spreadsheet neutralized the capacity for accountability. Thinking of the Shitty Architecture Men list, can you be accountable to someone who isn’t identified?

 

LA: That particular spreadsheet surprised me in that it actually centered the conversation around anonymity. It initiated a lot of methodological questions. An open letter removes some concern for the format. It is legible, it is sentences, it is things that you can emotionally invest in instead of questioning the journalistic practices of its production, which is what the Shitty Architecture Men list produced. Every time it was mentioned, we would actually end up in a conversation about veracity and provability. It created lots of loopholes in the system, which I think unfortunately discredited the process itself. It is very surprising the little impact it had; the act of being listed in things usually always has this very damning condition because it is sort of on or off. It is like a switch.

 

JYG: Let’s close the conversation on this question of digital readership, which is tied to the question of architecture’s public sphere. Cyrus, this is something you are thinking about a lot, but I’ll say my thinking about what constitutes the public and architecture has shifted since doing work at Materials & Applications (M&A).2 For a long time, public architecture and public art was interested in bringing people out to physical spaces and sharing that space through the installation model. A sense of something being public came from a physical site, physically accessible to anyone who wanted to walk by—a 1990s state-run and developer-funded public art project kind of thing. But when the Internet happened to M&A, our understanding of the public expanded outside of its physical sited-ness. We now have different kinds of publics accessing our programs, and sited-ness fades to the background a bit. We start to have the community spaces of architecture, new spaces of participation, and mutual aid networks across the country that really seem only possible in the era of the internet.3

 

LA: Food Not Bombs would be a zine version of mutual aid.

 

CP: There are examples of mutual aid that existed prior to the Internet. But more recently (maybe because of our pandemic-induced intimacy with devices), the Internet has helped these networks grow and become more visible, especially with the support of Google Sheets and Docs. In some networks, I have seen features of the organizational space—the shared document, the public profile or email address—allow for connections to be formed solely through one’s Gmail account, as opposed to in-person interactions. Mutual aid networks might also be increasingly visible because we are living through multiple crises that require aid in different ways.

 

GRF: I think both Laida and Cyrus’s responses are important. Your comments remind me of the long endeavor to unhinge architecture from its site specificity.

 

LA: To produce audiences now is to produce buy-in for earnest projects. Before, the creation of an audience required an installation in a public space. But that kept the audience and the discipline of architecture separate from one another. I think with something like mutual aid, the digital tools are helping expand our audience. Audience comes with one’s involvement because of the very subject matter. You can’t visit mutual aid, but it creates membership and collectivity. Despite the fact of “issues tourism,” to create an audience and membership into architectural collectivity are one and the same. I don’t know if that’s what you were trying to say, Gary, but there is strong evidence of a growing collectivity in architecture. Rather than maintaining the separation of architect from the audience, now it’s like you are in the collective that is thinking, doing, and looking at these things.

 

JYG: At M&A, we were doing a lot of interviews with collaborative spaces. In the interview with the Director of the Women’s Center for Creative Work, Sarah Williams offered a really nice distinction in their organization around the difference between community and audience.4 In major institutions, often there is a conflation of community and audience. But for WCCW, audience means those who might come to a public-facing event and then leave. But the community of Women’s Center are people who are actively involved in participating in the construction of the organization and institution. I am much more invested in the question of porosity and participation in organizations and institutions. How does one build direct contact to intervene in architectural systems?

 

LA: The cultural realm of Women’s Center for Creative Work initially wouldn’t do cultural output which made the audience a third person exhibition producer. That is instead the architectural exhibition format. We do something and an audience looks at it; those don’t really fuse into one. Originally, the Women’s Center program meant putting a printer in their main space for use. I’m likening them with Gary’s point, about the audience creating collectivity.

 

GRF: This feels analogous to the open letter. There we have, it seems, three actors. The person who is writing and the person who is being addressed, both on the inside of the same institution, are actually in the action together somehow and possibly only in opposition. Then there is the audience outside the institution, maybe us, who receive it in very different terms. Maybe the analogy isn’t quite so neat. But I think it is interesting, perhaps productive, to consider a different ecology of conversation in opposition to the speech act, where one speaks and one receives. The question would then become how to make community or collectivity out of audience.

 

Speaking of formats, this back-and-forth dialogue between friends took place on September 11, 2020, and will be published close to a year after the discussions took place. Several rounds of editing and transcription took place. There is no foreseeable end to this conversation, but for the purposes of this publication, the transcription ends here. Accompanying this conversation is an Open Letters Archive, an online repository of fifteen open letters circulated by architecture students and faculty nationally. Most open letters are housed on independent websites. Considering that the typical lifespan of websites lasts less than ten years and are highly dependent on the maintenance practices of the domain registrant, Jia Yi Gu began working with Delaney McCraney to screenshot and collect a selection of open letters for future posterity. The Open Letters Archive and index can be accessed via tiny.cc/2021openletters.

 

Endnotes

1. The Shitty Architecture Men list is no longer visible to the general public, but for insight into its founder’s thinking, one can read an interview with the anonymous list generator. See: Anonymous as told to Suzanne Labarre, “Why I Started the Shitty Architecture Men List,” Fast Company, March 15, 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/90164300/exclusive-why-i-started-a-shitty-architecture-men-list.

2. From 2015 to 2020, Jia Yi Gu served as Director of Materials & Applications, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit project space dedicated to critical and experimental architecture. With a focus on architectural ideas and processes,
M&A curates critical exhibitions and commissions new work by underrecognized architects, designers, and artists. See: www.materialsandapplications.org.

3. Bart Cammaerts discusses the participatory effects of the intent in relation to mutual aid and mutual survival work in “Internet-Mediated Mutual Cooperation Practices: The Sharing of Material and Immaterial Resources” in The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age, eds. Barney Darin, Coleman Gabriella, Ross Christine, Sterne Jonathan, and Tembeck Tamar (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 145–66. Mutual aid has also served as an organizing model for the internet itself, where principles of decentralized power and condition-less sharing. See Jonathan Zittrain, “A Mutual Aid Treaty for the Internet” in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, ed. Rosen Jeffrey and Wittes Benjamin (Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 100–10, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7864/j.ctt6wpdhr?turn_away=true.

4. In early 2021, the Women’s Center for Creative Work changed their name to the Feminist Center for Creative Work, moving away from a gendered name association to one that is more reflective of the organization now. The Feminist Center for Creative Work centers a feminism prioritizing Black and Indigenous people of color, queer, trans and nonbinary people, and other historically marginalized communities. In their words, “Not all women are feminists and not all feminists are women.”

 

Laida Aguirre is an architectural designer, director of stock-a-studio, and Assistant Professor at University of Michigan. Their research focuses on the way the built environment is affected by the politics of aesthetics, logistics, and media.
www.someparts.parts | @stock_a_studio

Gary Riichirō Fox is an architectural historian and curator. He is a visiting faculty member at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and has co-curated exhibitions at the Getty Research Institute and an upcoming exhibition at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. His research focuses on histories of environmental governance and the construction of legal notions of visual propriety.
@garyriichirofox

Jia Yi Gu is an architectural historian, curator, and educator. She is director of MAK Center for Art and Architecture, codirector of the architecture research and design studio Spinagu with Maxi Spina, and is Visiting Faculty at California College of Art.
www.jiayigu.com | www.spinagu.com | @jiagu | @spinagustudio

Cyrus Peñarroyo is a Filipino-American designer and educator whose work examines architecture’s entanglement with contemporary media and digital culture. He is a partner of the design practice EXTENTS and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan.
www.extents.us | @extents.us



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,