The architect and writer on action as information, subtraction as growth, and indeterminacy as a practical protocol for design.
“Few would look at a concrete highway system or an electrical grid and perceive agency in their static arrangement,” writes Keller Easterling, architect, writer, and professor at the Yale School of Architecture, in “An Internet of Things.” “Spaces and urban arrangements are usually treated as collections of objects or volumes, not as actors. Yet the organization itself is active. It is doing something.”
By now, we are familiar with the idea that what we can’t see can be powerful. We know that “invisible” does not mean “immaterial”; that we can experience effect without defined cause. Mobile phones and computers are just conduits for a vast network circulating in the ether. Society’s organizing structures—governments, markets, non-governmental bodies practicing the kind of “soft law” Easterling calls “extrastatecraft”—influence through mechanisms of abstraction: opaque regulatory standards, capital flows, drone strikes, tacit consensus, hiding in plain sight.
In her latest book, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Easterling argues that such organizations of “space, information and power” are infrastructural: “not the urban substructure, but the urban structure itself.” Repeatable and contagious formulas for urban space like Special Economic Zones, golf communities, and Starbucks behave like software, updating and adapting to new information and requirements across time. But key to Easterling’s argument—what makes the book exciting, not bleak—is that the workings of infrastructure are neither abstract nor exotic. Infrastructure is practical and spatial, and subject to design. The very same principles of repeatability and contagion that facilitate the proliferation of SEZs are there for the co-opting.
Easterling calls such formulas “active form.” Where “object form” refers to more traditional, physical products of design, “active form” refers to infrastructures, in which information is carried in activity: not a building with kinetic components, but a system of relations unfolding across time. It is entirely possible (although, as Easterling reiterates throughout her work, the idea “must still struggle against many powerful habits of mind”) for architects to think in terms of active form, gleaning techniques and strategies from models like SEZs to modulate spatial information and therefore its effects.
This is, to borrow the title of Easterling’s 2012 TEDx talk, the space in which we’re swimming. And Easterling has been swimming in it since she was an undergraduate, studying theater at Princeton. As an actor and later a playwright, she observed the way theater writing contained “the trace of an infinitive,” “a notation for an action,” an indeterminate potentiality played out spatially and temporally. “Uncertainty doesn’t preclude action,” Easterling writes elsewhere. “It is the stuff of a more finely grained and stealthy political world where one works with the indeterminate to be not only more practical but also more vigilant.” As a playwright sets up a set of conditions, leaving room for the infinitive, so too can an architect design to alter, to subvert, to recast, to open.
—Amelia Stein for Guernica
Guernica: You were twenty in 1979, the year Shenzhen, China, was declared a Special Economic Zone, and roughly the time the Internet was being launched. You write extensively about SEZs and the Internet as infrastructural networks—do you think living through that time period has had an influence on your research?
Keller Easterling: I suppose that one has the greatest amnesia for the recent past, and, growing up where I did, I wouldn’t have known the slightest thing about what was happening in the world. It would never occur to me to map my research against events in my life, and the recent history of globalization seems to be part of someone else’s life. Still, maybe I have been trying to fill in a history or address that amnesia for the recent past. There’s so much that’s opaque about the ways in which extra layers of global governance have developed since Pax Americana and really accelerated in these last thirty, forty years. But at the moment, I am trying to return to being a teenager.
Guernica: I suppose, with that question, I’m also trying to ask what it was like to witness the advent of the Internet.
Keller Easterling: It doesn’t seem that long ago, or it seems like just one in a series of innovations and platform changes that are always happening. But, in the ’90s, there was a digital euphoria that accompanies any new infrastructure platform. Whether railroads or electricity or the Internet, there is always some sense that this is the new, redemptive platform—that finally, finally, we’ve found the platform that will allow us all to lead a democratic, global existence, where all problems will be solved. And the idea that the old platform becomes obsolete, “this kills that,” and so on, also often accompanies the advent of a new technology. The digital platform is no exception.
The notions of frontier that accompanied the mid-century highways also scripted the Internet. In fact, in 1994, at Columbia, I taught a course called “Interstate to Internet.” We were trying to identify scripts attending the digital platform. There were many revivals of the most conservative parts of cybernetic thinking related to predictability, feedback, or homeostatic organizations. Sci-fi, of course, was another prominent script. We were tracking Kevin Kelly [founding editor of Wired magazine and editor of the Whole Earth Review] as the next generation of Stewart Brand [founder of the Whole Earth Catalog], and we were looking at the ways in which the Internet was almost instantly becoming a tool for the political right, as reflected in contemporary cultural ephemera—websites, a newsletter titled “Forbes ASAP,” etc.
I am talking about some of the same things now—about seeing beyond digital technologies to see space itself as an information system. As Gregory Bateson would say: a man, a tree, and an axe is an information system. I have recently had conversations with some friends about that moment in the mid-’90s, and when I go back to read things I wrote then, it is clear that I keep coming back to these ideas.
The whole idea of action being a carrier of information is something that comes directly from theater.
Guernica: You were also writing plays in the mid-’90s. Can you tell me about that?
Keller Easterling: I started as an actress and later became a playwright. If there is anything personal that maps onto my architecture work, it’s that I was trained in theater before being trained in architecture. And I’ve transposed techniques from theater to architecture. The whole idea of action being a carrier of information is something that comes directly from theater. That’s, in some ways, the one thing I’ve been trying to contribute. I still write things outside of architecture—not really fiction, but not nonfiction. I like dialogue as a form, because the text is only the trace of an action. The consequential information is carried in the action you choose to put on that text.
Guernica: What led you from theater to architecture?
Keller Easterling: I thought it would offer a mix of the artful and practical. It seemed cooler than some of the other options in the university. The lights were on in the architecture school when I got out of rehearsal at night. And I thought the men were handsome.
Guernica: Bruno Latour, whose actor-network theory you reference in Extrastatecraft, actually presented a theater production at The Kitchen in New York last year. Do you see theater not just as an applicable field for the kinds of concepts you’re writing about, but as an effective language? You’ve said before that theatrical writing always contains a trace of the infinitive, and this applies to the idea of “disposition,” or potentiality of form, that you discuss in Extrastatecraft.
Keller Easterling: Unlike Latour, I would never want to do a theater piece about what I write about in architecture. That’s kind of like when people used to ask me, “Oh, you’re an architect who’s interested in theater, I guess you do set design?” It’s not going to appear in theater, but as a habit of mind. It may be unfathomable in architecture, but it is very practical, or routine, for a person in theater to use action. You have the line, “Come home, son,” but you can’t play that line by going out and being a mother; you can’t be a noun. But you can play to smother your son; you can play to grovel to your son. Again, the real information is carried in action. And, to an annoying degree, theater people talk to each other in infinitive expressions. If you don’t have a vivid verb to describe what you’re doing, you’re probably going to be a pretty bad actress.
The director is always asking, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” That has always fascinated me, and always seemed to open up architectural territory that’s under-grazed. Just by converting to another part of speech or another register, you can redouble the material you have to work with. In some ways Extrastatecraft is about looking at the object forms that my profession is trained to deal with, but trying to see them almost like the line “Come home, son.” If the object was the noun, seeing how that noun can be positioned to be more active in culture —to have an action, to carry more information.
Guernica: The difference between what you call “object form” and “active form” is one of the major concepts of Extrastatecraft, and when it was time for audience questions after a recent talk you gave at Columbia, it was clear that people were having trouble understanding “active form” as essentially a series of relationships. They were getting stuck on the “form” part. Why is an “active form” still a form?
Keller Easterling: I used the word “form” for a number of reasons, and I don’t want “active form” to be regarded as a term, but it was a convenient way to gesture to things that we’re already doing and know how to do, but in which we are under-rehearsed. There’s nothing exotic about active form, and it’s within our purview as a discipline. Architecture does sometimes use the word “form” as one would use the word “shape” or “outline” or “silhouette”—whereas the word, across many disciplines, from poetry to visual arts to film, means something different. I guess I wanted to develop a comfort with this extended repertoire of form. How does object form partner with active form to become a multiplier, or a switch? What does it enact? Every good architect is already thinking in this way. But in the context of the kind of infrastructure space I’m looking at, I’m making a very unlikely argument by saying that all the stuff that’s repeated, from spatial products to whole cities, which looks so daunting to architects, might be especially empowering. At this moment, it might be harder to make a meaningful object form alone, but easier to make an active form that can piggyback on those multipliers to recondition spaces in a politically significant way.
I love making object form; I wish I was doing more of it. I admire the research of my colleagues, and sometimes it makes me sad when their beautiful work—the deep dives into formal research and nuances of geometry and so on—ends up circling in more and more circumscribed contexts. I wish they were more powerful. It’s not a modern proposition. Active form doesn’t kill object form. I want my students to have all those skills related to geometry, shape, measure, scale, etc., plus skills for using space to manipulate power in the world.
Guernica: As you say, those skills of geometry and measure and so on are the traditional skills for designing an object form. Is there a comparable set of skills for designing an active form?
Keller Easterling: There is a comfort with design that may be a detail, rather than a building; comfort with form that is time-released and never finished. How do you represent an instruction set that will play out in time? There may be slightly different kinds of documents for representing those forms, and different skills for advocating change outside of our fee-for-service habits.
Some people should choose only to make object form because that’s what gives them pleasure. But there are people for whom aesthetic pleasure comes from doing something else, and why would you deny that choice?
Guernica: Maybe this also relates to another idea you raise in Extrastatecraft, that designing an active form has its own particular aesthetic pleasures. It sounds like, from what you’re saying, time is somehow one of these pleasures—being able to design in time.
Keller Easterling: In architecture, to do anything beyond object form is often treated as something extra-disciplinary—something outside the discipline that has nothing to do with art. So I’m making it clear that this is an artistic choice. It’s not everyone’s artistic choice. Some people should choose only to make object form because that’s what gives them pleasure. But there are people for whom aesthetic pleasure comes from doing something else, and why would you deny that choice? It’s another autonomous choice. For instance—it wasn’t an architect who did this, but if it had been an architect, it would have been a good day’s work: there was a marketing person who convinced Walmart that their products sold better in daylight than electric light. It would have been interesting if an architect had deliberately designed this change with all its spatial consequences in mind, thinking about how the change would multiply across all the square footage of all the roofs of all the Walmarts in the world. It would have been a beautiful trick—a physical, practical, political pleasure. A change that could be amplified by its own mechanism. A way to exploit those who exploit. Again, it’s not for everyone.
Guernica: In Subtraction, your volume of the journal Critical Spatial Practice, you argue that “unbuilding” can actually be a form of growth. In another text, The Action Is the Form, you use the Invisible Man as an example of exactly how subtraction can function as a design protocol: “The Invisible Man was only powerful and sneaky because he both appeared and disappeared. When the man himself was not visible, the space that he disturbed was visible.” When you talk about “subtraction,” do people think you’re being conceptual?
Keller Easterling: I am not sure. When students and colleagues read it and use it, I don’t think it seems especially conceptual to them. Architects and urbanists are fascinated with cities that are shrinking, like the Rust Belt cities. Or, alternatively, we are fascinated with the growth of favelas and informal settlements. The 2008 financial crisis made these changes more extreme. The subtraction protocols rehearse a way of thinking about multiple properties in counterbalancing interdependence—not just the shaping of one property but the ratcheting interplay between properties. Again, its one of those habits of mind in which we’re under-rehearsed. Borrowing from [philosopher] Gilbert Ryle, this work involves not just “knowing that,” but “knowing how.” And again, it’s quite practical. If you’re steering a boat down a river, it’s not something about which you can know that. You can only know how to do it. It’s unfinished, it has no start-stop time, it’s fluid. Practicality relies on indeterminate markers. It’s just another kind of knowledge that’s sexy, in a certain way. It’s reactive, and often physical. I just wrote an article for e-flux that was trying to describe this. And I’m writing some not-nonfiction about someone who only knows how—who doesn’t have the capacity to know that. The knowing how part of their mind is so well-developed that knowing that—knowing the right answer as a single, executive decision—is very foreign.
Guernica: In State of Exception, Giorgio Agamben calls states of exception “ambiguous zones” where sovereignty is declared and normal law is suspended based on supposed necessity. Agamben argues that states of exception have become ubiquitous—in other words, no longer exceptional. You footnote Agamben at one point, but you don’t really compare states of exception with SEZs, although there are some face-value similarities.
Keller Easterling: Agamben talks about the “zone d’attentes of our airports and certain outskirts of our cities” that seem to take on this paradigm of exception—ubiquitous, as you say. Extrastatecraft is nourished by Agamben’s thinking, without question. But then there was a moment where I had to recognize that the zone doesn’t embody exactly the same idea of exception that Agamben describes. There is no single emergency or exception, but rather multiple states and extra-state players. The zone offers a mongrel form of exception with a scatter of exemptions that are harder to trace within camouflaged jurisdictions and nested forms of sovereignty. For instance, who is responsible for oversight, especially when it comes to the treatment of labor in many of these zones? It is nourishing to read Agamben and gain insight about the contemporary state of labor that finds itself in what might be called a—legally—lawless area like the zone. But then I also find it nourishing to read someone like [anthropologist] Aihwa Ong, who’s looking not only at the evacuation of law, but at the network of all kinds of players—from NGOs to human traffickers—within which labor is caught. Both models are nourishing.
When addressing urgent situations, whether it’s the depletion of the rainforest or abuse of labor, well-meaning people are working with tools, like standards, that seem like very blunt instruments.
Guernica: When you describe these kinds of extra-governmental organizations in Extrastatecraft, it’s scary, because they are at once totally nebulous and totally opaque. You couldn’t make that kind of bureaucracy up—the real thing is the superlative of the cliché. For instance, you describe the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an independent agency responsible for enforcing “standards.” The way these “standards” are constituted and assessed, especially with regard to SEZs, allows for hugely broad jurisdiction, but without even basic transparency requirements!
Keller Easterling: There are dangers surrounding innocuousness and consensus and habit. ISO organizes hundreds of people on technical committees who are, no doubt, trying to do their best. But the standards in some cases end up reinforcing violence and destruction thousands of miles away. At a talk I gave at Harvard recently, someone asked about positioning spatial studies within a university. I’ve been trying to elevate the status of spatial studies to make it more relevant to other disciplines. Rather than asking architecture to be more interdisciplinary—a perennial issue within the discipline—I am suggesting that other disciplines might exploit the powers of architecture and urbanism. When addressing urgent situations, whether it’s the depletion of the rainforest or abuse of labor, well-meaning people are working with tools, like standards, that seem like very blunt instruments. I am suggesting that spatial variables that are underexploited in governance might add to that repertoire.
It’s about us, as architects, but also for people who are in global governance, having a chance to think first about spatial variables as something that can leverage change in governance. Right now, that’s not what we use; it’s always econometrics or standards or some other technical language. To use these great, lumpy, heavy things of space as little machines that can be used in interplay, that’s another potential pleasure.
Guernica: You’ve traveled to many of the places you write about and have seen many zones in action. Is there a particular place you’ve visited or event you’ve witnessed that was especially influential in your work?
Keller Easterling: Here is one example: on a visit to Kenya, I spoke with the permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication, Dr. Bitange Ndemo. He showed me a pamphlet that McKinsey had helped to organize, and the person meeting with him after me was someone from the World Bank. It’s funny how much one learns from context. Throughout that entire visit, with all its meetings, there was an experience of the place that taught me things I couldn’t learn by reading global newswires. The fact that I learned so much makes me wish that I could visit more places. So many of the zones, of course, are closed, so one knows about them only in secondhand ways. My research has only scratched the surface. There are thousands of zones around the world. There’s just so much work to do.
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