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2017 in Review (and more)

I begin writing this post to usher in 2018 with a large purring cat on my lap, glad that we are home from skiing in Vermont and doing her best to prevent me from typing. Until 2012 it was a yearly tradition for me to take stock of the state of things, personally, professionally, and in the world at large. The last five years have been something of a whirlwind and even though I have tried, I haven't returned to this tradition.

Looking back at the last entry, from January 2013, I began with the words:

With the second inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, we also breathe a guarded sign of relief. The eight years of Republican rule at the start of the millennium were enough to discredit that party for the rest of the millennium, but it also came with a certain weariness. This time around Obama did not run on a platform of hope. And how could he have? He squandered that platform within a month of assuming office the first time around, appointing a boys' club of advisors that made the early comparisons to Kennedy's Camelot seem all too prescient. The first Obama administration, backing finance over building infrastructure and helping the poor, turned to the expediency of drone strikes over the messiness of peaceful resolutions, dismissed both single-payer and government options for national healthcare, and stayed quiet about climate change.

Well, those seemed like pretty good times, all things considered. This inauguration was met with shock and dismay by anyone with any wit whatsoever as we start with a President mired in dementia and crippled by narcissistic personality disorder, surrounded by glad-handers, hangers-on and family members more concerned with convincing him into doing their bidding than governing. The bane of the academy, neoliberalism, is gone for now, replaced by outright kleptocracy.

The core of this dysfunction, ultimately, is the infrastructural stalemate of government. By this, I am referring to the condition that I outlined in the introduction to the Infrastructural City, in which competing infrastructures and groups of stakeholders face off against each other, rabidly defending their turf even at the risk of the collapse of the system as a whole. Systems that cannot survive it (for example, AT&T and the Bell System) die or are radically restructured (in that case, the development of competing infrastructures of telematics), even if that process can take decades. By 2012, we could see infrastructural stalemate permeate Congress. Even as the Republican majority not only refused to work with the Democrats, it was internally hamstrung by the uncompromising demands of the Tea Party movement. The ensuing deadlock over budget priorities and the threat of repeated government shutdowns over rising debt led Congress to institute budget sequestration, a series of automatic spending cuts that, once set in motion, operated without the need for direct intervention. Sequestration was the sort of solution that managers of infrastructure often resort to: a jury-rigged system that everyone hates, but that everyone hates less than what competing stakeholders might propose.

In this light, the Republican victory of 2016 could be seen as infrastructural. Recall that in 2008 Obama had promised he would be known as “the Infrastructure President” only to quickly swerve away from these promises in favor of propping up big banks and the financial system. Two terms later, not only had the more familiar infrastructures of roads, bridges, rail, and air continued marching toward collapse, the same sicknesses that affect them had infected government. But, you may ask what about the blatant racism, calls to violence, and other horrors of the 2016 election? What do those have to do with infrastructure? Simple: fascism. The strong man comes in and promises that all that needs to be done is grab the lazy sods by the ears and bash their heads until they listen. Recall that Mussolini bragged he got the trains to run on time while Hitler's great pride was the world's first integrated highway system, the autobahn. Similarly, in Turkey Erdogan is undertaking a series of "crazy projects" such as a tunnel under the Bosporus, a new canal connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara to minimize traffic in the Istanbul Strait, a massive new airport in Istanbul, and so on. It's this identical impetus that animates our current President as he claims he will impose order to the government one way or another.

Apart from his own failings, most notably the collusion with the Russian government during his election campaign, a crime already sinking his presidency, as well as his utter inability to focus or process information, the President faces challenges from the checks and balances that the founding fathers built into the US00 system; infrastructural stalemate as a Constitutional strategy. Unlikely to be able to turn it into the outright authoritarian rule that he desperately craves, the President faces a political dead end. In the meantime, he and those closest to him have turned to the best option they have: kleptocracy. In the name of infrastructure, the administration does what it can to remove regulations on pet industries (fossil fuel, mining, big manufacturing, e.g. all the old industries that find it difficult to be viable today) and while we hear constant promises about a big infrastructure act coming, I am convinced that it will largely be yet more concessions to specific supporters and, whenever possible, his own failing business ventures.

The one saving grace is that so far, I don't see an asset bubble of the sort that crippled the markets in 2008. Certainly, some stocks, such as Facebook, are worth far more than they should be, but if on the whole assets are high, liquidity is as well. As markets crashed overnight following Brexit and the 2016 election, banks and other investors bought up the temporarily devalued assets to make a healthy profit. From the perspective of the markets, this is a good thing, as one danger to the Federal Reserve's timidity about raising interest rates is that it leaves them with precious margin to restart the economy during a correction. Still, there is some likelihood that by increasing corporate profits, the Tax Reform plan (read: redistribution of wealth to benefit the oligarchs plan) will keep the economy going longer without a correction and overheat it, thus leading to Stagflation MK 2, but for now, I am thinking we will be in a similar economic condition a year from now. The markets may be up or down a bit, but likely no great change. Unless, of course, some very bad decision is made about North Korea or Iran or …

Throughout it, the importance of network culture becomes clearer and clearer. If YouTube made ISIS, Twitter (with a little help from Russians running bots and hacking into DNC servers) elected this President. The last two years are entirely unimagineable without social media and e-mail. But alas, any dreams of an online Jeffersonian democracy are long gone. How we will dig ourselves out of this hole is beyond me.

Worse yet, the US retreat from the Paris Accords, the attacks on Affordable Health Care, and the spread of oligarchy suggest that we are now firmly in the early phases of what William Gibson terms “the Jackpot.” Dark Accelerationism is here, with Steve Bannon (Steve Bannon! I mean think about it!) still guiding nihilistic forces in the White House from behind the scenes. Still, humans do have a funny capacity to make do and maybe the orange skies of Blade Runner 2049 will remain confined to that alternate time-line.

I finished my last year in review with the words:

So we end with a paradox. 2012 taught us that the stagnant state of network culture isn't stasis. Instead, it is accompanied by massive, unpredictable change. It's up to us to figure out how to harness that unpredictability for good and how to use extreme change and extreme proposals work to better society. I hope that in retrospect I will have something more positive to say about 2013. 

Let's hope for more in 2018 then. 

Blogging is an enterprise without hope these days, a dead medium, but in that, it remains something of a form of resistance, hosted on my own server, outside of the censoring eye of any institution. I won’t make any promises about whether I will blog more or not it the next year, but it remains part of my practice. As most of my readers know, in the five years since the end of 2012, I left GSAPP after a new Dean shut down Mark Wigley’s labs project and I recognized that, at least for the time being, universities were too big and dinosaur-like to host the kind of work I am pursuing. That isn't to say that I might continue with some teaching here and there. Maybe I will even go back to teaching full time, but for now it seems like it's time to side with nocturnal mammals scampering around furtively as dinosaurs lumber around in their last days (last days take a while, and meteorites don't always come so don't hold your breath for that one).

Back in 1980, Robert Fripp posted a manifesto on the back of his album “Let the Power Fall.” It has been reposted on the Discipline Global Mobile site although I had to laugh when my first attempt to find it again led to this post, made just as I was transitioning to Columbia and launching the Netlab. Over the two years since I have left full time teaching, I have found much more time and space to pursue the sort of projects that drive me, not only critical writing, but also exhibitions. If there will be some a few more projects involving my father’s work like the exhibit this year, I am hardly his keeper and can only set that research in motion so that others can take it on to give different insights. More important is my work with the Netlab, AUDC, and on my own. Different versions of these institutions will rise and recede, some may vanish and new ones may take the place. Throughout it, however, I set my intention for the next year and next five years to be a time for deepening my own research, radically interrogating the boundaries of space so as to help us come to an understanding of what this thing called network culture really is.  

Time for a Change

I've been saying that I would leave Drupal for a few years now and today I took some steps in that direction, putting together a new front end to varnelis.net. It took two hours to produce a site with the Kirby CMS and it will take a bit longer to add the content. Eventually, I will integrate all of the content from the blog (as well as my articles) into Kirby or maybe update the Drupal side of this site, but for now, I'm thrilled that I will have a modern image-rich, mobile-friendly site for my practice.

Optics & Structure: Works by Kazys Varnelis, 1966-1976

On 30 June, Optics & Structure: Works by Kazys Varnelis, 1966-1976 opens at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania. This show, which runs through mid August and which I am curating, surveys the key decade when my father developed his distinctive approach to painting and experimented with constructions in space. 

During this period Varnelis explored the possibilities of light and shadow in monochromatic canvases rigorously divided into geometric shapes inscribed with smooth gradients of shadow. These works are the mature product of Varnelis’s experimentation with acrylic paint on canvas to explore the interplay of flatness and depth, the illusion of concave and convex surfaces and the production of striking optical phenomena. 

Living in Chicago and sympathetic to the Miesian architecture then being built in the city, the artist intended these paintings to be exhibited in large, modern spaces, notably art galleries, museums, and public buildings, with plenty of room for the works to be seen both in isolation and in juxtaposition. 

Displaying some fifty-six paintings from the collections of the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum as well as some little seen works now in the Ellex Collection, this exhibit marks the first time that a significant number of these works will be shown together in the sort of setting they were designed for since the small number shown in the “Three Agendas” exhibit in Vilnius, Budapest and Tampere twenty years ago and the first time that the majority of Varnelis’s classic works will be exhibited in one exhibit space since his 1974 one-man show at the Milwaukee Art Center.

Accompanying the exhibit of Varnelis’s paintings will be reproductions of the artist’s experiments in space (constructions or sculptures), a reconstruction of a three-dimensional model that the artist built to show how his work might appear in the “documenta 6” exhibition, as well as documentary material demonstrating how Varnelis, along with the curators and architects of his day, thought about exhibiting his work.   

Thoughts for a Rainy Monday

It's a chilly, rainy Monday, the kind you might have in Western Ireland, not in Northern New Jersey, and since it's not yet June I feel justified in having a fire in my Morso insert while I listen to synthesizer music on the stereo. The cat just settled down, half on the couch, half on my left arm. With my typing somewhat disabled by an aging feline seeking warmth, maybe I'll even try blogging again.

It's been nineteen years since I started blogging, twelve since I switched to Drupal, four since I became completely frustrated with Drupal and decided it was time to move on. I still haven't. I don't blog much anymore and when I do, I talk about how I don't blog much anymore. I mention these dates sometimes and I make plans to update the site, slow plans.

In the meantime, I thought I'd update anyone who wandered by here as to what I am up to these days.

I'm on extended sabbatical, perhaps a permanent one, having all but retired from academia. You can read about it in my post on the academy, but the crux of it is that like Drupal, the academy became too complex, too slow, too bloated, too bogged down in internal administrative trivia to notice that it had become irrelevant. I doubt any of this will change soon either. The smartest friends I have in the academy want nothing to do with administrative roles. Such positions lead to little more than overwork, frustration, and bad health. If you're lucky enough to shape a school with a vision, you'll find it undone when the university introduces a new round of budget cuts.

But this sickness is deeper, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. In my last years of full time teaching, starting around 2012, I began noticing that the quality of students was dropping off precipitously. In the space of a couple of years, top students vanished and even passable students became rare. Students increasingly demanded praise for work that should not have received a passing grade. First students lost the ability to write essays with thesis sentences, now even basic literacy is in question. Instead of making an effort, students complained. It was bizarre, disheartening. Oddly, every faculty member that I have spoken to about this agrees. Although I still see remarkable efforts in some places—notably NJIT where I have seen some of the best work done in recent years—student work seems to be collapsing irregardless of institution and, judging from my conversations with other faculty, irregardless of field. In casual conversations with professors in fields from the design fields to chemistry to law to English, it seems that something bad is happening in universities. The most widely held theory seems to be that students are so addicted to social media that they can't think for themselves anymore, but something is causing a collapse. Much as I'd like to believe that I could make a difference, the bad taste left in my mouth by the last studio I taught means that I need to stay on sabbatical for a while longer, maybe for good. 

Instead, I have been doing a lot of planting lately. This site on the first Watchung Mountain was terraced in the 1980s then over the years the sort of plants one sees everywhere—euonymous, berberis, forsythia, pachysandra, and other invasive species—had been planted in an attempt to make the terrain conform more with traditional ideas of what a suburban yard should be. This spring we have begun undoing this in order to create a more sustainable landscape.

I am well aware that planting native plants won't restore an ecosystem destroyed a hundred and fifty years ago, but at least it can lead to a more sustainable condition that won't require me to water it frequently, nurse it along, or be concerned about what will happen during major storms. It's meditative to work in the garden—although not perhaps so much when I brought twelve tons of soil down a flight of stairs wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow—and centers me. It's a small legacy, the individual act of one family in an era of climate change and mass extinction. 

As I do this, I have some big, public projects under way as well. This year is the 100th anniversary of my father's birth and the 50th anniversary of my birth and with that in mind I am working on a show on the essential, late modern period in my father's work, e.g. 1967-1977 that will open at the National Art Gallery in Vilnius one month from now, on June 30. Afterwards, I think it'll be time to edit a book on that period of my father's work and produce book on ten years of work at the Netlab. And in the meantime, I'll be seeking venues for my work with the Netlab, AUDC, and independently. 

Azora (1971)

Half centuries are a funny thing. My father operated a church interior design studio between the late 1940s and early 1960s when Vatican II and dwindling churchgoing led him to conclude that this project was over. At 50 he started teaching—oddly he is called "the Professor" in Lithuania even though he taught full time for only ten years and I taught full time for twenty years—and pursued his vision of modern art. This lasted a good ten years before he got burned out again, this time by the fashion system of art, and moved to Western Massachusetts where he established a gallery of his own works in a nearly ruined Berkshire cottage. 

With my half century mark looming ahead of me, I'm curiously optimistic about the body of work I am refining at present. Like a garden, it's a matter of planting in the right place and tending to things as they mature. Maybe when my landscaping here has reached a state I am happy with I'll buy a property somewhere upstate with a large barn and start installing my art in it. It'd be an interesting project.  

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