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Thinking Outside the Academy

Brian Prugh

From left to right: Nick Gelpi, Jan Verwoert, Benjamin Bratton, and Michael Hardt. Photo: Luis Eligio.

While Miami’s art scene is often faulted for lack of depth and conceptual rigor, there is enough intellectual energy here for a group of eight artists (spearheaded by Odalis Valdivieso and Lidija Slavkovic) to organize Fall Semester, a two-day rapid-fire conference where internationally recognized scholars, critics, and theorists came together to consider the city—especially this city, situated on the northern frontier of the global South.

What is perhaps most interesting about the event is its independence: it was created and funded outside of the local museums and academic institutions. As a result it has the flexibility and promise associated with Miami on many levels: there is nothing here so we build things; our institutions are wanting so we find ways to create new ones. Fall Semester is part of a growing number of artist-sponsored initiatives to bypass what feels like an increasingly overpriced and irrelevant university system. The question is, does it work?

Thinking the City

The content of Fall Semester was divided into four topics: “The Urban Real,” “The Urban Unreal”, “The Plasticity of the City” and “Architectural Weather.” Each topic addressed an aspect of the relationship between the matter of the city (buildings, infrastructure, space), the political and economic systems that have shaped that matter, and the possibilities for achieving a just society built within or upon this material base.

“The Urban Real” and “The Urban Unreal” represented two opposing concepts of what makes up the city. They can be conceptualized in different ways, but the basic idea is that some aspects of the city look more real than they are, whereas other aspects that might be nearly invisible are more nearly the fabric that holds the city together. For instance, Nathalie Rozencwajg contrasted the well-ordered appearance of the facade of a Parisian apartment (with levels devoted to working class inhabitants, a bourgeois family and their servants), which she labeled “unreal,” with the interior chaos (including subdivided spaces, studios or home offices and students living in servant quarters) that are the “real” divisions of space allowing the city to continue to function. In this case, the stone facade which makes a visual claim to reality is actually anything but real; the hidden life inside represents the real life of the place and the potential space for growth and development.

Unfortunately, those terms are slippery. Jason Dittmer used the same terminology in the opposite way, describing the frames in comic books (like the façades of buildings) as “real,” while maintaining that the spaces between them (the gutters, which act like the spaces behind the façades of buildings) are “unreal.” However, Dittmer reached the same conclusion about the potential of the spaces between and behind the façades, except that he upheld the potential of the “urban unreal” even as Rozencwajg made the same point in valorizing the “urban real.”

“The Plasticity of the City” considered changes to the city (“Real” and “Unreal” changes, depending on how those terms are defined) and how these changes have either passively reshaped social relationships or have been mobilized for political ends. For instance, Léopold Lambert argued that, in Gaza, constricting inhabitable space and the targeting of houses by Israeli bombs reshaped Gaza City’s architecture to the end of political terror. Lambert described a conscious reshaping of the structure of a city by a political entity. Benjamin Bratton, on the other hand, considered the way that the infrastructure we have created to facilitate digital communication (what he calls the “stack”) acts upon us in surprising ways, twisting an infrastructure we ostensibly built to serve human interests into an engine that we, in turn, serve. At issue are the ways that design changes the city, which in turn changes its inhabitants, and the ability for something that is designed for one purpose to work toward a different and potentially opposing end.

There were two distinct threads present in the idea of “Architectural Weather”: the relation of architecture to literal weather, especially tropical weather, and what I would call the weather of architecture—as defining the character of the spaces created by architecture. Jean-François LeJeune and Marion von Osten considered the influence of the tropics and the global South on the development of Modernist architecture. Presentations by Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss and Jan Verwoert and the essay by François Roche were more suggestive of the nature of the atmosphere created by architecture. Jovanovic Weiss, for instance, considered the idea of a “soft monument,” defined not necessarily by an aggressive political agenda but by an act of rebellion or a more subtle architectural intervention. He cited as an instance apartment owners in Sarajevo who refused to remodel the exterior of their section of the building, leaving evidence of war (bullet holes, shrapnel marks) in plain view and conspicuous against the smooth walls of flanking apartments, evoking the architectural weather of another time where most other buildings covered it up. The double valence of “Architectural Weather” allowed contributors to examine on a more concrete level the interactions between architecture and the environment—both ecological and human.

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Benjamin Bratton presenting on the second day of Fall Semester. Photo: Luis Eligio.

Thinking and Academic Production

Together, this set of topics circled around the idea of what makes up a city—from bricks and mortar to pathways for communications and capital flows to power relations between individuals, infrastructure and political factions. The diversity of disciplines and approaches, and the scope of the various projects (especially the ambitious papers of Bratton, Nick Srnicek and Keller Easterling) created an atmosphere of trying to think the city—to somehow comprehend its elemental structure.

It seemed an absolutely appropriate project for an empty second floor in the Design District. It was a space full of potential: unfinished ceilings and bare cement floors provided an evocative atmosphere for musings on how extant urban architecture might be repurposed. The audience seemed right, too—a mixture of artists, designers, academics, and others listened attentively. I got the feeling that the reason that the speakers were here, and the reason that the additional essays were commissioned, was that a group (small perhaps, but serious) in Miami really wanted to think through these issues—to consider more deeply the theoretical discussions of the city with an eye to informing what they do on a daily basis.

But it is precisely here that I think a disconnect opens up between the speakers and the audience, and I think that it has to do with the difference between an academic conference and what Fall Semester is trying to be. I want to say this: the audience arrived to think through a problem, but the speakers delivered academic products. Now, this might seem to be hair-splitting. At their best, an academic’s products are precisely the thinking through of a problem. There is the potential for there to be no difference between the one thing and the other. But there was something about the presentations, on the whole, that suggested a subtle reification of a bit of thinking by a person who is employed by a university into a kind of academic commodity. What follows is an attempt to specify a gut feeling I had about a disconnect between the audience and the presenters—a sense that what the audience wanted was not exactly what the presenters offered. This, in turn, has consequences for the possibility of genuine critical inquiry outside of the academy.

At the heart of the distinction I am trying to make is an instrument for measuring academic labor: the Curriculum Vitae (CV). The idea seems innocuous enough: a list of degrees, teaching positions, publications, talks, exhibitions and projects that gives anyone surveying the document a sense for the scholar’s production. A well-trained eye can determine the pedigree of the individual quite quickly—where the degrees are from, publishers of articles and books, exhibition venues—and it therefore becomes an important tool in hiring decisions and tenure review.

The model here is production, and the institutional preference for measuring value is quantity, with quality determined by the prestige of the venue or publisher: each line on the CV represents some contribution to humanity’s collective store of knowledge, and productive scholars can easily measure their value in CV lines. It is a questionable system, but department heads have administrators to answer to, and in the arts and humanities, well, they have to do something to prove that they are still relevant even though they can’t snag the grant money that the scientists can. The result is that academics no longer have the luxury to think through problems. The thought of a tenured professor with few or no publications has become absurd, and the requirements for tenure are gradually inching higher. So in order to continue thinking, academics must become productive. In order for their thinking to qualify as production, it must take a very particular form—a form specific to each discipline but one that stamps the work with the seal of credibility. This is what makes it a product.

I noticed during the presentations that while each one was thoughtful and evidenced moments of lucid and rigorous enquiry, something about them did not fit in the room in which we gathered. Had I seen the presentations in the context of a university-sponsored event nothing would have seemed amiss. This resulted in part from the way that the presenters framed their projects. LeJeune situated his historical project against histories of Modernist architecture told from a “northern” perspective; Srnicek and Michael Hardt’s analyses navigated a history of leftist and Marxist political theory; Jovanovic Weiss, Gray Read, and Nick Gelpi situated architectural projects / proposals within a matrix of related architectural developments. That is, the frame for each talk was pre-fabricated, constructed by the institutional definition of the presenters’ respective disciplines. But the sense that the papers belonged more to the presenters’ academic departments than to the particular venue where we all gathered also had something to do with the language in which the speakers framed their arguments, their mutually independent sets of sources, and the widely variant ends pursued by their respective disciplines.

There is something more afoot here than scholars simply speaking in their own idiom. Academic production demands consistency, standards for addressing existing scholarship, and a well-defined framework within which research in the discipline is conducted. The expectation that academics should produce knowledge in this particular way has consequences. This knowledge—like the latest advances in mathematics or molecular biology—can only be understood by experts and therefore all inquiry must be situated exclusively within a hermetic, professionalized institution.

It therefore becomes problematic when products shaped by these demands leave the academy: outside of an audience composed of fellow-researchers, the usual framing of the academic product that serves to differentiate it from other work done in the same field can become somewhat surreal, acting to obscure instead of clarify the scope of the paper or presentation. Language can also become problematic, as technical terms developed in one discipline can conflict with terms that have become homonyms with different histories in other disciplines or in common use. And because each discipline draws on very different canonical texts, there is no foundation upon which to build a common conversation. The audience, here, becomes almost totally irrelevant to the speaker—not only are they not fellow experts in the discipline, and therefore able to challenge the speakers on their own terms, but they are therefore not in the best position to follow the projects and arguments with which they are being presented. Instead of a community of scholars actively engaging with a concerned and critical audience, the dynamic turned out to be a display of the products of thought to an audience alienated from the expression of ideas they came to consider.

This might sound like an appeal to the scholars to “dumb down” their talks for a general audience—but I think that the actual effect of the conference was to “dumb down” the audience that might have been able to make a substantive contribution to the conversation, rendering them unable to engage the overly specialized expression of serious and rigorous thought. The culprit is, in part, resources. Fall Semester only had the resources to purchase (or to have scholars donate) surplus academic products, despite its desire to get people thinking. Another culprit may also be an attempt to compress a semester’s worth of thinking into a weekend.

I am not sure that there is a way out of this dilemma. In order to sustain their careers, scholars must efficiently distribute the products of their thought—which might mean tweaking a book chapter or reading an already published paper for an event like Fall Semester (grateful as I am for having encountered them). And the resources necessary to commission fresh thinking are beyond the reach of an artist-organized program like Fall Semester, whose organizers also helped to fund it. But I can neither say that this is satisfactory nor suggest that they should give up their independence: I strongly believe that we need thinking more than we need production, and that it is independent programs like Fall Semester that are trying to make this possible.

Brian Prugh is an artist and an art critic who recently moved to Miami from Iowa City, where he completed his MFA in painting.

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  • It is notable that Prugh cited the dilemma.

    This was a concerned of mine when attending the two day academic conference. Yet there is no mention of any another initiative to rival what Fall Semester is attempting to do. After all the speakers presented their arguments there was a Q&A which concluded each day. I found this to be the most beneficial portion of the event. Academics were able to engage each other in their respective field and also address any curiosities the audience may have. Pruge has trepidations as to what direction Fall Semester may need to take but this convergence in the form of a fluid conversation would be the most effective. Its a platform which would come closer to achieving Fall Semester’s concerns and goals for the intellectual deficit Miami is currently experiencing.