ALF 04

The Power of Infrastructure Space / Prof. Keller Easterling interviewed by Natasha Marie Llorens

Dubai's Internet City. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keller Easterling is an architect, urbanist, and writer, and is currently a professor at Yale School of Architecture. Her book Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (MIT, 2005), researched familiar spatial products that have landed in difficult or hyperbolic political situations around the world. Easterling’s latest book, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014), examines global infrastructure networks as a medium of polity. Her work has been widely published in journals such as Art Forum, Domus, Grey Room, Volume, Cabinet, Assemblage, Log, Praxis, Harvard Design Magazine, Perspecta, Metalocus, and ANY.

Natasha Marie Llorens: In your book, Enduring Innocence, you argue that classical modes of resistance might be more complicit with market forces than we currently acknowledge and that there are other roles and characters that could be analyzed productively as models for resistance. You put forward a number of them – the believer, the cheater, the pirate, etc. – that are ambiguous, which is to say you don’t give the reader any satisfyingly pure answers about whom they should seek to embody. Perhaps you could speak more about these characters and how you see their political potential.

Keller Easterling: In Enduring Innocence, the pirate doing productive activism was someone who was breaking a blockade in order to release more information, as opposed to the orgman who was building an isomorphic disposition in urbanism. “Productive piracy” didn’t align with a righteousness that might also be seen as isomorphic. The righteousness that we rely on as a cornerstone of activism could also be blocking information and undermining the very dissidence that it hopes to achieve.

The book that I just finished, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, has both evidentiary and contemplative segments not unlike Enduring Innocence, but it argues that there is a certain kind of matrix space, infrastructural space, repeatable formulas for space, spatial products, etc. that tutor us in another species of activism. One of the contemplative segments in it is a list of things to do. Piracy is just one of many different kinds of techniques, characters, etc.

Both in Enduring Innocence and in Extrastatecraft, you describe the agency that spaces or architectures have and the agency that human agents have. I wonder what the relationship is between these two kinds of agency in the landscape you’re sketching for us.

In Extrastatecraft, with a tip of the hat to a number of thinkers like Gilbert Ryle, Gregory Bateson and Bruno Latour, the stuff of infrastructure space is itself an actor, a non-human actor operating with human actors in socio-technical networks. What one is tinkering with in order to create change can be, of course, the stated, the declared, the righteous—“these are my politics, I give them a name.” That’s one approach that will always exist and should always exist. But there are auxiliary techniques that work on the dispositions embedded in the organization of infrastructure space—dispositions that can be tuned to political and activist effect. These auxiliary techniques may be undeclared, sneakier, less overt or righteous, and less deliberately oppositional, but they nevertheless soften the ground for more declared politics. Tinkering with these dispositions is, I argue, a very powerful way of making sea changes.

If you have a field, you don’t square up against every weed in the field, you change the chemistry of the soil. Infrastructure space or matrix space is made up of repeatable formulas – golf courses and free zones and malls all over the world, space that we might see as something that is a terrible, a spectacle. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an incredibly powerful space that can be tuned to great effect. It’s that kind of repeatable space with all of its multipliers and switches that I am looking at to develop a different species of activist movement. Multipliers are a good example; multipliers, contagions. (And here one is perhaps learning a little more from Gabriel Tarde than Karl Marx.) One is not looking for the ultimate revolution or utopia, but instead the constant tuning of a set of multipliers.

I think you’re saying that the tale of destruction and semiotic death that someone like Rem Koolhaas tells us about in his famous article Junkspace is too narrow and that there are possibilities within transitional space, or the liminal spaces between centers of capital, that we need to take advantage of and that we need to think about in terms of resistance… and yet I found Junkspace so convincing because spaces like airports can feel immovable. It can feel difficult to locate “multipliers” or places where one could shift the social meaning or locate cracks in their edifice. Perhaps you could give a thicker fiction about a “multiplier” in response to this idea.

As an architect, you can say, “We’re making these nice stones in the water. But we’re not making the water. We are powerless in the face of it, and there’s nothing we can do.” That’s similar to the tragic arias of the activist: “I’m going to be right and we will have the ultimate final revolution or there is nothing.” And we wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure of tragedy and misery that some people get from this view. Condemning junkspace as wrong and only stones in the water is a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, and that’s just fine.
But there are some architects, including me, who also have a strong artistic curiosity about how to make the water. I like making the stones—the architectural objects but I can’t deny an artistic curiosity about the matrix space as well. Typically, when architects think about matrix space, they call it the stuff of policy or dismiss it as junk, but I think there is an artistic way to approach it. Or I’d like to spread the rumor that this is the case.

One thing many spatial products have in common is repeatable components: repeatable formulas, repeatable schedules, repeatable details, repeatable routines. Those things are the multipliers. If one says, “Ok, we’ll change a detail in Wal-Mart,” or “I will change the way that golf courses work,” this decision gets multiplied. It’s a power that is currently being manipulated by the market. I’m arguing: what if it was manipulated by architects instead, by those who know something about space. I’m arguing for a more powerful position for us in decision-making about global governance. 

There was a book before Enduring Innocence called Organizational Space, which just looked at infrastructure space in the United States. This book asked, ‘What about a switch in this matrix space?’ An architect usually designs the shape of one thing; even in an urban design, they design a master plan, which is an object. But what if they were to design a switch which inflects a stream of objects?

Extrastatecraft argues that infrastructural space tutors a new species of form-making and, in parallel, a new species of activism. Just as those multipliers could be an activist technique, so could the switch. Another example is a remote control that one uses to change something without giving away your position. Sometimes you’re advocating for something that can’t be achieved politically in the domestic scene, but might be achieved by creating remote leverage in another country or with a coalition of foreign countries. Sometimes these techniques rely on being undeclared.

Which relates to piracy, then…

Yes, and this is tricky since for familiar activist stances, the undeclared seems to risk being collusive. But that may be another slightly tragic position, because the kind of thing proposed here is less like collusion and more like manipulation. Manipulating the market and colluding with it are not the same things. The purity that sometimes goes with righteousness can be counterproductive.

Purity seems dangerous?

I think it’s deadly, in fact, and violent. Purity is violent.

Leaving aside purity, how do you talk about ethics when you don’t declare a position? How to be responsible to other people? How to define that responsibly? How to show up to each other so that recognition can take place? This is also a question I had about piracy in Enduring Innocence.

When I hear the word ethics in your question, I don’t hear ethics as the declaration of principles, but the ethics that is the struggle. It seems that there is just no stability there. There is a section in Extrastatecraft, borrowed from Gilbert Ryle that is about the difference between knowing “that” and knowing “how.” And perhaps the ethics of political activity is about knowing how and not knowing that. One knows how in relation to what appears, but one doesn’t necessarily know that. One is against authoritarian power and abuse—brutal violence and the abuse of other human beings and environments. This is not so hard to figure out. But figuring out how to counteract it is the hard part.

Can we ask whether, as a result of our actions, more or less information is allowed to exist? For instance, one of the sections in Extrastatecraft is about free zones. They’re moving all around the world and proliferating and using the rhetoric of freedom and openness and so on, but analyzing the disposition of these spaces reveals that they turn quite quickly into spaces of isomorphism, closure and abuse. It’s very easy to see that, with regard to labor, there’s an information lockdown. If you use Bateson’s definition of information, information is the difference that makes a difference—can we think about actions that release information and environments that are information rich? Here we are talking about not only the information carried in text and media, but the information carried in the dispositions of space.

One of the things that fascinated me about Enduring Innocence was the oscillation between large conclusions about how to be a different kind of subject and your very specific analysis of how information moves in particular places, India for example. I am thinking here about your discussion of golf parks and the kinds of social relationships they construct, as well as how they supplement corporate decision-making space. I wonder about your material choices, or the particular sites you chose to work on in Extrastatecraft.

There are three evidentiary segments and three contemplative segments in the book. The first deals with free zone, the second with broadband in Kenya, and the third is a somewhat different species of infrastructure space: it looks at ISO, the organization in Geneva that determines global technical standards. They determine the standards for everything from a locking mechanism for shipping containers to … everything. But their main standard is a management standard. Those are the three fields of evidence, but each one of them is dispersed geographically. Each one of them works with many kinds of space at different scales—from networked infrastructures—like transportation and communication infrastructures—to spatial infrastructures, which propagate recipes for spatial products.

The first contemplative segment looks at disposition and what I’m calling active forms, like the multipliers and switches we were discussing earlier. If architects mostly make object forms, or things with shapes, then active forms are more like bits of code and software. This segment examines the way in which disposition is the result of all of the active forms that are moving through an organization.

The second contemplative segment looks at stories, cultural stories that affect an organization’s disposition and that change the course of infrastructure. I look mostly at ideological stories about militarism, liberalism and universalism. These scripts, stories or ideologies can, for instance, deliver something like a binary disposition to an organization. In the case of activism, the scripts of righteous opposition have sometimes delivered activism to a deadlocked binary disposition.

Where do you get the term disposition? This interested me in part because disposition is a concept we inherit from Renaissance architecture, from Leone Battista Alberti. In his sense, it was a physical term that was also equally used to describe the ideological ground for a building.

I’m using disposition because it is a word in common parlance, and we already know what it means. But it directly references Gilbert Ryle, an ordinary language philosopher. I think all the uses of the term disposition are in play in what I’m trying to write. Alberti’s use of the term to mean relative position is also very much in play in what I’m talking about because I’m trying to discuss designing organizational chemistries that make a difference.

Alberti refers to the description of a building’s position vis-à-vis the wind and the atmosphere of a particular landscape such that a building could be healthy and aerated, such that the body that lived in it could be healthy and aerated. This was important during the Renaissance because of collective trauma related to the Black Plague. An architect had to be sensitive to the chemistry of space. I ask because this definition seems quite similar to what you were discussing earlier when you talk about changing the soil chemistry rather than confronting each weed.

Yes, exactly. One among many others who consider disposition is François Jullien. He argues that a round ball on an inclined plane—its geometry or relative position—has disposition. There’s a potentiality, a propensity, a property that’s associated with the disposition.

To go back to an earlier thread in our conversation, how do you find switches and multipliers, as an architect? What is the process through which you identify vulnerabilities in infrastructure space, things that could be tweaked?

I’ve been arguing that it takes a bit of rehearsal to do it because, as a discipline, we’ve been focused on making objects. You have to tune your eyes to see slightly differently. You’re looking at population effects instead of things. For example, at one point a marketing person pointed out to Wal-Mart that their products sold better in daylight. An architect who is rehearsing active forms would automatically see x-millions of fluorescent light tubes vanishing. They would automatically be calculating the population effects of acres of roof on each Wal-Mart multiplied by all Wal-Marts. In one move, which appears to be a non-spatial move, they would have altered energy consumption and changed acres and acres and acres of space.

I’m not talking about a David and Goliath story. I’m talking about a sneakier David, like a David crossed with a Tom Sawyer who can get the giant to paint the fence. This kind of architect locates things that the organization itself multiplies out of self-interest. This is very irksome to a righteous activist, but again, the righteous activist should carry on being righteous and should carry on being right. But this sneakier David can help them.

If one of the issues is training one’s perception to see the possibilities behind smaller changes and to think in terms of energy saved and the roofing saved and the repercussions that are multiplied, it seems like another part of the task is negotiating one’s position such that one can make the decision in the first place.

This is such an uphill battle and such a difficult thing to suggest to architects. The first questions are all old-school questions like “What about my client? What does my client want?” An artistic fascination with matrix space might mean that you have to embark on a completely different kind of practice. It means working like an entrepreneur. I’m obviously using that term to describe someone who is a political and cultural as well as a commercial entrepreneur. I’m likening this matrix space to a big spatial operating system and this new kind of practice is about figuring out ways to hack that spatial operating system with all the things that you’ve learned about space and urbanism as an architect.

In Enduring Innocence, it isn’t always clear that the agent who is releasing information intends to do so, or that they set out with a political goal, like the marketing person in your parable about Wal-Mart. There seems to be a contradiction here between the new kind of architectural agent you’re rehearsing and the forms you’ve analyzed—one requires a deep sense of discipline and the other way one just acts accidentally.

It’s quite deliberate, but it is a different way of knowing and making. When Gilbert Ryle argues against the Cartesian mind-body split, he uses the example of the clown. You can’t ask the clown, “What is being funny?” The clown is funny in an unfolding situation. In this architectural practice that I am fantasizing about, there would be moments when one would deliberately push through an invention of some sort. But there would be other times that one would be so good at thinking dispositionally that when the opportunity appears, you can respond effectively. Both approaches are about knowing how. Extrastatecraft assembles a number of these dispositional techniques in the contemplation on activism. And many of them have to do with the manipulation of story; things like pandas…


China gave two pandas to Taiwan whose names, when translated, meant “unity,” or something worse, like “reunion”. This kind of arm-twisting gift is potentially effective without being overtly oppositional. Extrastatecraft devotes an entire contemplation to similar techniques such as exaggerated compliance, distraction, meaninglessness, fiction, comedy, remote controls and ‘english’. All of these often operate not on the declared content of a political dispute but rather on the disposition and the temperament of an unfolding, and ongoing, political situation. For instance, when you’re playing billiards or pool you give the ball some ‘english’ by hitting it a certain way so that it spins a certain way. After you spin it, everything happens between the balls. ‘English’ is an advanced activist technique, and it gets back to your accident question. You can’t control it, but you recognize how to exploit it when it’s happening.

The techniques rehearse ways to diffuse violence, offering not tense resistance and refusal but a release of information and a release into new territories of operation. I have long studied the information stored in ubiquitous spaces around the world. Within the undeclared activities of these spaces, the most powerful players in the world manage to outpace and circumvent laws and regulations. Extrastatecraft is suggesting that two can play at this game.