In architecture and design-related circles, author and educator Geoff Manaugh needs little introduction. Through a consistently revelatory and often dizzying stream of spatial polemics hatched at his blog BLDGBLOG, Manaugh has spun-off his interest in architecture, science and the environment into a number of educational, curatorial and journalistic ventures. In 2011, Manaugh was approached by the Nevada Museum of Art to organize an exhibition entitled Landscape Futures and he used the opportunity to showcase work by an exciting group of multidisciplinary designers with practices focused on interrogating our perception and experience of landscape. That exhibition led to a book of the same name (recently published by Actar) and it is hardly surprising that the text ups the ante of this spatial discourse. Landscape Futures is a really dynamic read with a stellar introductory essay by Manaugh focused on the mediation of landscape through technology, some newly commissioned short articles and essays by related thinkers, documentation of work from the exhibition, and a series of follow-up interviews that drill down into the thinking of his featured designers (Chris Woebken, Smout Allen, The Living, and others). Last week, CAN was fortunate enough to chat with Manaugh about ‘landscape futures’ over Skype for about a half hour and we’re sharing the following (edited) transcript of that exchange as a window into the book.
In the intro to your essay you mention the internal shorthand that was used by the Nevada Museum of Art in their pitch for the exhibition, which was ‘landscape 2.0’. A lot of people that are discussing geospatial issues right now, are really limiting themselves to talking about things like phones and location-based social networks and so much of what you examine is at the very edges of science—archaeology, aerospace, underwater storm modelling, etc.—a long way from more pedestrian experiences of networked media. How exactly did you bracket ‘landscape’ within this exhibition and the book that later extended out of it?
I think that one of the ways that I look at landscape—particularly in terms of this exhibition—is as the extended spatial field in which activities take place. Whether these activities are carried out by humans or animals, or some other species, I don’t believe in limiting landscape to design (like central park) or urban landscapes. Additionally, I am not interested in limiting landscape to the corporate radio spectrum that we have with cellphones but rather would look at extremely dynamic and ancient planetary landscapes that can be accessed in new ways through instrumentation and tools that have been developed to analyze them. So that’s why I think it’s interesting that, under the guise of landscape, I can include the Farallon Plate, which is a tectonic plate that still has coherence within certain imaging technologies and yet is totally invisible from the surface of the earth. This nose-diving tectonic plate, as it subducts back into the earth is a feature of the earth’s deep surface, and is a landscape properly speaking, but yet has no tangible reality for human experience beyond the indirect spatial side-effects which which include the Rocky Mountains. I suppose I’m working to open up landscape and talk about things that are ‘there’ and ‘physical’ but perhaps only can be known to us through the tools and instruments that we design to perceive them in a different way.
As exciting as it is to talk about mobile phones and the idea of the smartphone as ‘the future navigator of urban space’ and that kind of thing, I’m just very wary of over-celebrating that through the rhetoric of games or play, or the prosumer idea. This idea that ‘as long as corporations let us use their spectra that we can get access to the city in a new way’—I just feel like that’s a questionable political road to go down. I certainly didn’t want to do a celebratory exhibition about iPhones.
Beyond that there is a whole seedy underbelly of conflict minerals driving that milieu, which is definitely an example of ‘engagement with the landscape’ that doesn’t fit into that utopian warm and fuzzy narrative.
Ok, well now that you’re warmed up and talking about instruments, I have to say that I was delightfully surprised by the presence and cataloguing of all those techniques across disciplines in the book—I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the precedents you cited. You start with Mark Smout’s ‘dazzle objects’ which is a studio project, and delve into how a number of artists, architects, and scientists are building various perceptual hacks. I’m wondering if you can talk a little about what those different disciplines bring to this practice of instrumentation and constructing devices.
It’s pretty fascinating that you can look at all of these different disciplines and find that if they don’t centre on, then they at least incorporate the use of instrumentation to a degree that is fairly surprising. Even if you look at the most basic road survey crew, or ship docking technology, or the construction of rail yards, you get into these kind of optical networks that are really only usable or perceivable through devices that form a kind of secondary landscape for optical machines that are readable and interpretable by those devices. In the essay, I mention something that Matt Jones has written about, which he calls ‘the robot readable world’ and there’s this interesting kind of secondary layer of perceivable objects and sensors that are physically present but they are only visible through these other machines and technologies. I think it’s interesting that some of the most high-tech work happening today is in archeology. There’s the use of ground-penetrating radar which is now pretty old hat, there’s magnetometry, there’s the use of LIDAR which is using lasers attached to airplanes flying above the rain forest canopy. In Greenland recently, there was a big news story about using LIDAR on airplanes as well as gravitational readings to find this canyon that is supposedly longer than the Grand Canyon underneath the Greenland ice sheet. By extension you’ll also see these techniques at play in police investigation where there is regular use of scanners and 3D modelling for forensic reconstructions of crime scenes. As I’ve dug deeper into this research, I’ve decided that I find it is actually kind of a ruse that cities are the most tech-centric environments, when, in reality, if we look at forest practices or agriculture, in the absolute hearts of depopulated rural areas you’ll find precision agriculture and satellites or UAVS being used to scan crops for possible disease or infestations. I find it fascinating that these embedded secondary technological landscapes which are really kind of all over the place, are by no means social and by no means all urban. I don’t know if that answers your question or not, but I think it’s really interesting that these other fields from agriculture, to archeology to crime scene investigation, to geology and oceanography all reveal the use of instruments and also focus on what those instruments show us and what is present in the landscape that we might not have noticed before.
Of course some of the most interesting art and research practices at the moment are interfacing with scientific practices like the ones you’ve mentioned and are maybe not appropriating, but definitely engaging their methodologies Your book is absolutely jammed with compelling multidisciplinary work, I’m wondering if you could identify a few really emblematic projects that speak to artist-level or practice-level responses to the milieu you just described.
Well sure, I definitely think one of the most interesting examples are these two really young designers who are recent graduates from the Bartlet School of Architecture in London. They’ve just started a studio that is called ScanLAB Projects, and they’re doing some incredible work. I guess you could say they’re early work was subverting scanner landscapes and so you could take a LIDAR scan of an an object or space, so for instance, you could scan the facade of a building, or you could scan an entire in situ object, or you could scan an urban site. They’re applying this technology to diaphanous spatial events, so they’d scan things like fog banks or humidity, or forests in the process of being cut down, so you’d get these really strange time-sequenced glitch images of deforestation. Then they got the idea of creating stealth objects, effectively trying to design objects that would either be surfaced so complexly in terms of faceting or curvature that they would not be readable by a scanner, but then also exploring the possible political implications of that. One one hand, there is the kind of dark side of that situation, where you could very easily imagine a military application of stopping someone else from being able to scan an environment or interfering with someone else’s weaponry or that kind of thing, but from the bottom-up perspective you could almost imagine a protest scanner movement where you could create objects where you could make it impossible to scan a certain point of the environment. This reminds me of the response to Google Maps in Germany where you could opt-out of having your house appear on StreetView and that resulted in an awesome year or two where there were a lot of blurred houses on German Google StreetView. You could imagine these kind of anti-scanning objects around the city shutting down scanners that would be used for police or military operations. In any case I think it is very interesting that they are reverse engineering objects from the world of laser scanning and they are foregrounding things that would slip between the cracks or open up the glitches of a scanned environment and find a new architecture within that sort of ‘mistake-scape’.
Sure, that’s taking it a step beyond the ‘making visible the invisible’ paradigm that everybody was kind of obsessed with several years ago. We’ve move on to problematizing these representational systems rather than simply deploying them for what they were designed to do.
Another theme that seemed quite prominent within the book nicely resonates with the ‘non-human turn’ in the social sciences that we’ve seen in the last few years. Animals are kind of protagonists in Landscape Futures and they’re leveraged and engaged as means to understand and perceive things. Can you describe how non-human species fit into your reading of landscape?
Yeah, I think there are a couple of things to speak to with that question. On the most basic level, there has been a realization that the landscapes we’ve designed are being used or colonized or kind of appropriated by non-human species and we tend to have this negative rhetoric of ‘infestation’—we refer to it as if it was organic pollution. Animals like rats or coyotes or racoons or mosquitos that use the landscape in a way that we haven’t intended, its as if we constructed these cities for ourselves and then these uninvited guests showed up and kind of exploded in population and we resent them and refer to them as vectors and pests. I think it’s useful to refuse to consider the presence of other species as a negative side-effect of the built environment, but instead view those creatures as ‘other users’, think about what is it that we’re designing that makes other habitats possible, and consider if there is a way to design for those types of creatures. But also I just find it really fascinating that media acts in the very literal sense as an intermediary between humans and other species that we might attempt to communicate with. A good example would be the Chris Woebeken and Kenichi Okada project that was in the exhibition. Entitled Animal Superpowers, users could actually don these almost shamanic masks and these strange technologies like gloves and goggles that would help a user imagine what it is like to be an animal. So the animal experience actually becomes this very technologically mediated experience that can be accessed through the instrumentation. I think that the very idea that there is this kind of weird overlap between animal bodies and media is not only fascinating, and as you say, kind of a zeitgeist right now. There’s an article that I cite in the curator’s essay where scientists at DARPA—who, no matter how far out an idea is that you think you’ve come up with, DARPA has already done it—and they’ve figured out a way to hack the nervous system of a squid, so they could basically change its skin patterns at will, turning it into a living bio-media. This is of course extraordinary in a biological sciences sense and also deeply deeply sinister in a moral and ethical sense, in that we could transform animal bodies into forms of media. I suppose you can find these kind of things throughout history, like homing pigeons where the appropriation of animal migration is used for human postal networks. I think these kind of examples demonstrate that there has always been this kind of strange overlap between animals, technology, and the ways in which we communicate with each other or with those animals.
The Living, The Gray Rush
Sure, ‘life after the stirrup’. Your exhibition participants are really diverse: Liam Young deals in architectural speculative fiction, Mason White and Lola Shepard have recently been quite focused on rethinking what built form and infrastructure could be in the ‘next north’ of the Canadian arctic, The Living fuse interaction and environmental design—none of your subjects are really landscape architects in the conventional sense. I’m interested in if you see the practice of landscape architecture actually engaging this realm, or is it multidisciplinary practitioners that are leading the ‘landscape futures’ charge?
I guess I’d say two things. One would be a caveat that I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m a trustworthy narrator in this sense in that I don’t have a background in landscape architecture, and definitely am approaching it as a outsider-enthusiast who didn’t study it and hasn’t worked in an office—so it is hard for me to say with any kind rigour that this is or is not happening in the field. With that caveat, I would say that it does seem that these types of projects pop up in a lot of student design proposals but don’t necessarily make it—at least from my experience—into large scale or even small scale projects, at least ones that I’ve seen. I find that on those types of questions I’d say that I use landscape architecture to get to a much larger field on inquiry, not just the one that you can study at the GSD or UCLA, but instead looking at geotechnical firms, precision agriculture, and all kinds of large-scale infrastructure projects. So in that case, even oceanography and the study of underwater storms that you mentioned earlier and is discussed in the curator’s essay—even that kind of activity is an architecting of landscapes. The space program, aerial terrains and the design of flight patterns, weather engineering—all of that stuff strikes me as ‘landscape architecture’. I would actually hope that precision agriculture landscapes would eventually be an option for people to explore in what is normally now referred to as landscape architecture. But again, for all I know there are courses at the GSD right now exploring exactly that, so its hard for me to speak in absolute terms.
Your mention of geotechnical firms is a nice segue into my next question. One of the eureka moments in your essay for me was when you discuss GeoDetect, sensor-embedded geotextile product—this is where we move well beyond the design fiction project in a gallery. Are there any examples of other products that really embody what you’re talking about?
The GeoDetect system is a pretty astonishing sensor network that is effectively a kind of 2D computing blanket that can be laid into landscapes in order to detect failures of things like levees and hillsides, or embankments next to freeways etc. We talk a lot about ubiquitous computing in the urban environment, but this is ubiquitous computing that is camouflaged as the surface of the earth. So you get into this really interesting kind of terrestrialization of the computer, or even the flat horizontalization of a network. I find that to be a seed for future developments that would be very interesting to watch. But you also see that kind of technology as being used by the security industry for setting up embedded invisible permitters, so you can actually have a magnetic permitter around a property so that there is nothing that is actually detectable—I mean, unless you have a magnetometer—so by walking over the edge of this invisible fence you’d be registered as having entered into the property. So it’s almost like an invisible border or invisible wall in the landscape, which I find is both interesting to think about when designing for in a civilian capacity, but also troubling if you look at how landscapes could be ‘locked up’ by these undetectable electromagnetic barriers. I also think there is a surprisingly interesting quality to the everyday lives of people who use boat navigation or are dealing with radar reflectors or marine radar. If it wasn’t 2013 and we suddenly learned about these bizarre devices that can reflect radar and create radar objects at sea, it would sound deeply avant-garde and strange—but it is just everyday life for families that take a boat out off of the coast of Long Island. I feel like there is a deeply strange technological quality to everyday life that is really easy to overlook and even the mundane products that we might buy at the local boat store actually do have a ‘landscape futures’ sense to them. It is important to try to find ways to recognize and foreground the deep strangeness of everyday life, whether it is criticism, curating, or writing—that is a key goal in my work.