ALF 03

A Permanent Anticipation Of Uncertainty / Adam Bobbette interviewed by Arnoldas Stramskas

Adam Bobbette teaches landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong and is currently completing a PhD in Geography at the University of Cambridge on the social history of volatile materials in Java. He is a founding editorial board member of Scapegoat: Architecture, Landscape, Political Economy.

My first question is more on a personal note. Browsing bits and pieces about your work it seems that you have been involved in quite a range of things (from punk rock and graffiti to philosophy and cultural studies to art and architecture), which may seem unrelated, but in actual fact they are. How do you see all these interests merging from the position you are in right now?

That's a tricky question. As in the old sense of a question of a trickster, which isn't bad, but a question full of holes leaking in all directions. How does one describe the lines that connect between seemingly divergent paths? I'm not sure. Some days it's easier than others. And it depends on who is asking. There are many connections and none. Sometimes I think I should be a better Victorian, ruminating on my diaries daily to keep myself from repeating mistakes, learning in a progressive manner from my obsessions, decisions, ideas. But I'm not a good Victorian. You know, there is this beautiful ending in the Archeology of Knowledge where Foucault writes ‘leave it to the police and the bureaucrats to make sure that our papers are in order’.

I wanted to ask this question because in your case I see some interesting ‘expanded fields’. There is something deeply muddy about the many discussions and practices of inter-, trans-, multi-disciplinarity; about specialization, as a very historical and problematic development and calls to go beyond. In terms of architecture, there seems to be this idea of a cult of personality or at least a cult of profession, of professionalization. On one hand, surely there is something to be ‘mastered’, but on another one, the question is what is being missed out (and not necessarily by some shallow ‘participation’ schemes, but through non-disciplinary engagement with site, space, social, economic etc.)?

It seems to me that a useful entry to this question is both through a historical and institutional analysis. We must remember that the professional architect recognizable today and the profession that supports her – and architecture as a profession – is a relatively recent invention. In North America it isn't much older than the late nineteenth century, in Europe a bit before. There is the emergence of someone with a specialized domain of knowledge which is carved out of the vicissitudes of its time. Moreover, the graduate schooling of the architect is even more recent, especially that they now belong to graduate schools and are totally bound up with the institutional politics of graduate education and the push towards ever higher levels of education. So all the concerns about disciplinary boundaries are turf wars in this larger game of, for lack of a better term, neo-liberal educational labour. But how to make one's way in that world and what the architect can do is a different, though related, problem.

I was curious to read your essay about Java and Hong Kong and different responses by social organizations in terms of a ‘permanent anticipation of uncertainty’. Could you talk about this project and how various human, natural, and built environment issues intersect and provoke you to think through things? In the context of Mapping Asia and AAA, which seems to tackle, among other issues, the issue of de-colonization, how does your (or the collective) knowledge production and your own position as ‘not fully local’ contribute to these processes and debates on de-colonization?

My research on the history of landslides in Hong Kong and the active volcano Mount Merapi in Central Java is an extension of a longer-term interest in unstable ground. Before this work, I spent time researching flooding in New Orleans and Jakarta. In each case, the ground is highly mobile. The Western metaphysical tradition has typically used the ground as a metaphor for stability, and we don’t have very good ways of thinking about the ground otherwise. This brought me to these highly unstable places where the distinction between ground and water (New Orleans and Jakarta) is impossible, or where the ground constantly flips from solid to liquid (Hong Kong and Merapi). And people build all sorts of life practices and theories as a way to live with and make sense of this instability. What I found in Hong Kong was, in the 1960s and 70s, an enormous effort to stabilize the ground – what geotechnical engineers called ‘consolidation’. Basically, they poured concrete over the entire territory to stop it from liquefying; they mummified it, in a sense. This enormous act then set the groundwork for a new post-colonial consolidation of the property market into a highly monopolistic and oligarchic system. So, what really interests me are the reverberations from the ground up to political-economic practices, and then back down to the ground in this highly complex and open-ended way.

If I understand correctly, your question about the colonial is about post-colonial theory and not so much about 19th century or contemporary colonialism. In this regard the Mapping Asia project of the Asia Art Archive, and the AAA as an institution in general, from what I have seen, inherits from that intellectual project, questioning the validity of the Nation State (which is complex to describe in relation to Hong Kong in particular) as the container and producer of identity. So instead, the institution privileges hybridity, flows, exchanges that make up ‘Asia’ as a complex, impure and geographically disparate entity rather than a border drawn on a map. The Asia Art Archive is an exemplary institution in my estimation, precisely for its constant self-deconstruction of its own foundations, such as the category of ‘Asia’ that gives it its name.

Lauren Berlant in one essay states: ‘Everything I write lately is from the position of depressive realism, in which the world’s hard scenes ride the wave of the optimism inscribed in ambivalence, but without taking on optimism’s conventional tones’. The presentation you gave a couple years ago in Vilnius sounded like a similar ‘balancing’ act against overwhelming forces in play. What do you think the role of the negative and positive is in spatial practices and thought? Is it useful to think through this opposition? 

It’s difficult to be hopeful, but there is an optimistic core to architecture that has persisted since modernism, it’s projective and constructive dimension ‒ that it makes worlds.

Architecture, urban planning, and related spatial disciplines too often become territorial and technical areas of specialization serving particular and limited goals. The theory, at least in a Lithuanian context, seems to be undervalued as a trivial distraction – in the end what a student needs is to build a house that won’t collapse or design a street which will serve a city’s traffic logic. How do you approach theory in your teaching? What disciplines do you draw on? What fields of knowledge would benefit spatial disciplines in the contemporary situation? Or what ‘nomadic concepts’, to use Isabelle Stengers’ words, are important for you and which transgress disciplines?

It is impossible to do architecture without theory. To know what a ‘good building is’, to like something in a building, to submit the city to the logic of circulation as you say, every decision that is made about architecture is entangled with and invokes theory. When schools pretend that it is otherwise they try to wish away the creative dimension of the practice, which is at its core a theoretical preoccupation. It is to become ideological in the worst possible way. To do theory and to be open to theory as a process rather than a closed system is to open practice up to other potential futures. Part of that strategy of opening is to invoke unusual words – like care – to the discourse of architecture. The use of unusual words and categories allows new voices and entities into the project, not to submit them to the tyranny of a ‘solution’ or ‘expertise’ but to allow new entities to partake of the open-ended project of building. 

Can you elaborate on the concept of care in terms of architecture? One could think immediately of preservation or heritage, as maintenance, or aesthetic sensibilities in terms of space. But I believe you have something else in mind?

I do have something else in mind. However, both preservation and heritage are very important contemporary discourses about the built world that show a lot of potential for shaping cities beyond the demands of the market and according to other values. The kind of care that I think about is about human and non-human relations, how architecture enables and distributes relations of care and danger. The kind of question it raises is what forms of care and danger are enabled by a project? What entities or actors does a project bring together? This is a kind of transversal way of looking at a project, where materials, humans and non-humans are assembled by architecture. Within that assemblage care and danger is always distributed and in different and not often equal ways. For instance, in Hong Kong the history of squatter developments in the 1960s and 1970s was produced by the vast refugee producing machine of civil war in Mainland China and post-colonial conflicts in South East Asia that sent people fleeing for a safe space to make a life. However, the government was incapable of handling the vast populations so they moved into geologically unstable territories which exposed them to the dangers of landslides. For a time, the devastating effects of these landslides didn’t mean much to the government, it didn’t set institutional mechanisms in motion, in a sense these people could be sacrificed. They didn’t need to be governed, in fact, they could perish. But then a threshold was breached and their insecurity became a matter of governance, which in part set in motion the blueprints for today’s public housing programmes which house about half of the city’s 10 million or so inhabitants. Care and danger then are like mobile poles in this field, you can trace them to understand how the built world is shaped and the actors that are allowed to take part in it.

I’ll give you another example, but where the terms are used in a quite different sense. In the village of Deles, on the south eastern slope of Merapi and very close to the crater, since the last massive eruption in 2010 they have begun a process of fortifying their relations with the monkey communities that live higher up the volcano. Many other villages shoot the monkeys because monkeys steal their crops. In Deles, however, they have begun feeding the monkeys fruit in order to enter into an alliance with them as a kind of risk reduction strategy. The reason is that the monkeys live closest to the top and so are the earliest to respond in the event of an eruption. Along with contemporary monitoring of the most sophisticated form, the monkeys are some of the first to know something is going to happen. They scramble down the mountain away from the top. Because Deles has welcomed them, they have no fear passing through the village on their way down, which alerts villagers. This is what I was told by Pak Sukiman, one of the village organizers. There is a distribution of care that fortifies resilience in an unstable world. In the essay you mentioned, I called this a compositional strategy, which in my mind is an architectural project, to compose relations. And within any composition care and danger are distributed amongst its actors – human and not.

Let’s talk about Scapegoat. It’s related with the political economy. I would be curious to hear something about the political economy of publishing it. For example, how does the editorial collective operate? 

The editorial board is made of nine members from across the world. For each issue we assign (usually) two issue editors who take charge of the logistics of the issue, while board members act as editors of the material. Financially, of course, it is a disaster. We are constantly in debt, but as many of us have academic jobs we are able to pitch in funds. Our interdisciplinarity occludes us from either the strict art journal or academic journal distribution networks. However, we are moving to include at least fifty percent triple blind peer review material in 2015. In part as a way to change our profile within the scholarly community but also because the blind review is a very valuable editorial tool for writers. It is one of the more noble techniques of the scholarly community, I think.

You’ve been involved in various art practices with certain spatial connotations. There seems to be a relatively long tradition of art making outside gallery space. Can you share any interesting examples of artists engaging, appropriating, remaking, or provoking in space? There are also the old and tired debates on relational art, on art’s autonomy, on engaged art practices and participatory art, art becoming a social service provider of sorts for the communities. Do you have any take on these debates? Do you find it useful?

I was just at a great event at KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre in Yogyakarta that involved speakers from Jakarta and Rotterdam. They were artists working at the edges of traditional art object production and moving much more into institution building. What seemed exciting to me in the discussion period, which was with a primarily Yogyakarta-based audience, was how everyone understood that what was at stake was not art but institution building. That in a quickly neo-liberalizing economy, one which is fixing its eyes more and more on the creative economy, the most urgent thing is to create institutions that have some resiliency against the destructive forces that this will most certainly bring to artist communities and their associations? How do you build institutions that protect forms of life from a fixation with commodities, status, the selfishness, destructive drive of the consumerist world? There needs to be a concerted effort to make institutions that not only provide alternatives but actively build worlds of other values. To do this requires both looking forward in anticipation but also backward to the precedents and traditions that have already existed, for which there are many in Java. The communitarian, socialist and communist histories of Java are so rich but have been systematically erased from memory, made unspeakable by oligarchs. So the project of retrieval is essential to this very practical project of building new institutions which would actually allow humans and non-humans to thrive. And this is an architectural and theoretical project.  

Are there examples of carving spaces for inventing new worlds that are not institutions? I am thinking of, for example, squatting, or other forms of spatial appropriation, collective arrangements, alternative economies and so on.

I would call squatting – as one form of collective arrangement, an institution, or, rather, collective arrangements are what institutions fundamentally are. (It is important here not to confuse what I mean by collectives with either Soviet or Chinese definitions, or their typical association with equality amongst its members.) This is why I think it is important to talk about institutions again, to get rid of the inaccurate idea that institutions are just from and by the government or the state. They are ways of co-habiting with others and non-humans (nature, objects, etc...). To squat in a building is to build an institution fuelled by the abolition of conventional capitalist private property relations, it is an experiment in building an ongoing form of society that succeeds and surpasses those immediately present and towards a future. This is one of my interests in the Merapi volcano, all the different forms of institutions that have been built on its slopes to equitably live with an unstable environment. Scapegoat too has been dedicated to publishing projects that try to build new institutions as new forms of being together.

The idea of the city as one of the ultimate forms of civilization has a long history. Some places like the U.S. at some point almost abandoned this ideal for something else. At the same time there are places around the world that are making cities beyond what used to be imagined, but perhaps with different connotations. I would like to hear what is your feeling on how the perceptions about what constitutes the city and its ideal across the different geographical locations that you’ve encountered? Half a century ago people like Henri Lefebvre were talking about planetary urbanization, suggesting that divisions between country and city are meaningless, but is there still something that fascinates us about cities and what makes cities recognizable as cities?    

It is certainly difficult to imagine thinking today in terms of the old European categories like the city and countryside or city and nature as if they could describe reality. The crisis of these categories has been in the making for some time. As you mention, Henri Lefebvre in the 60s and 70s. In the 1980s and 90s the work of William Cronon put the last nail in the coffin that we could distinguish the city from the countryside or that the city as culture stood apart from nature. Likewise too, David Harvey’s early geographical work contained important reflections in this regard, alongside other’s continuing the Marxist dialectical tradition. While Neil Brenner is very outspoken about the end of these categories and the necessity to understand urbanization as planetary, he is building on work that crosses disciplines from urban ecology, urban sociology and anthropology for the past few decades. Such radical and amazing work has made it very difficult for us to say in any simple way what a city is? Should we not speak instead in terms of intensities, of forces of attraction that accumulate in nodes within planetary networks? Or, of infrastructural agglutinations that are as deeply enmeshed in hinterlands as the metropolis? How do we begin to distinguish cities from each other? These are all central questions right now and do certainly inform my own research. For example again, my approach to mount Merapi is as a thoroughly urban and cosmopolitan volcano, people live all over it, it is surrounded at its base by cities that shake to the international tunes of Islam (Mecca), Japanese motor bikes, McDonald’s and mediaeval Hindu-Buddhist music. The volcano is just a very peculiar, productive and active agent in this assemblage.

Are we better or worse off for leaving utopias and utopian dreams behind?     

That we think we live in a world made of the horrifying and irreversible results of our own decisions is history becoming tragedy.