Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Read This, Map That

Winter time is reading time here at FASLANYC (or for Don Roman de la Mancha, book-on-tape-time).  Over the past few months a recurrent theme has been maps, a topic we have particular affection for.  I suppose this is not surprising, as the mapping of geographies, chronologies, and even pirate’s booty have been the subject of much attention within the landscape fields for some time now.  Nonetheless, we’ve come across a few interesting pieces on this topic, and though to share them dear-diary-style.
[H. Willis makes his way through some delightful winter reading
image courtesy of somethingintheair's flickr]

The Toronto School of Architecture has just started up a new “journal on landscape, architecture, and political economy” called Scapegoat.  We agree with what you’re think:  great premise, terrible title.  It is available for free, and the hard copy comes in a foldable newsprint format.  We are, of course, enamored with this.  The fact that someone is explicitly approaching landscape/architecture in terms of political economy means we’re on board.  A forum to actually discuss some of the underlying assumptions of power:  service/client relationships, the role of capital, alternative methods of practice- exciting stuff.  And the fact that it comes as a newspaper, with an emphasis on portability and utility, not preciousness and permanence; that is even better.  The fact that the copy editing is terrible is not worth getting worked up about, as the content is delicious and overcomes this sloppiness.  The first article, “Atlas Uber Alles”, discusses the contemporary act of mapping, the reasons for its recent rise and the subsequent ramifications, and it gets better from there.  Our two favorite pieces:
“30 Points to Challenge the Hegemonic Order in the City of Buenos Aires” by Iconoclasistas
The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit" (and profiled here on landscape+urbanism ages ago)
[Cartographies of Time excavates hundreds of fascinating timelines, lists, maps, and other historical devices such as this one showing the known world at a given point in time being surrounded by dark, roiling clouds]

The theme of permanence and ephemerality is a prominent one in a very promising book from the PAP- Cartographies of Time, and for a thorough review you can check in here.  The layout is decidedly conservative and the format cumbersome.  That said, this book is wonderful- go to the library and check it out right now if you are interested in seeing hundreds of images of carefully curated “cartographies of time”, with thoughtful context and theory provided by the authors.  Defining cartography as a system of images and text organized to communicate theories of time (our words, not theirs- they are decidedly un-pedantic), the authors start with the predominance of the line in modern times to communicate the idea of time.  It then goes back to excavate the assumptions underlying the line, as well as concepts and contexts that were active when other theories of time were employed before working back up chronologically to present day concepts and examples.
 [the Histomap by John Sparks is still one of the coolest diagrams out there]

The cleverly titled M.A.P. project series (Manual of Architectural Possibilities) by David Garcia Studio, recently exhibited at Pink Comma Gallery, is another lovely example of expanding agency, education, and experimentation through mapping exercises.  Each manual is uniform in its size, format, and aesthetics.  This, of course, makes it even more fun with each manual addressing themes as random and divergent as “quarantine”, “antartica”, and “archive” with a focus on utopian speculations and geographic diagrams.  The utility and fun of these manuals make it easy to imagine someone with a milk crate of them, grabbing whichever one is needed on their way out the door and back into the urban wilds.  Or whatever.  But they are exciting and offer a pretty clear way forward; pairing this serial format with various users (ie bus driver, school kids, diy cartographers, and an ecologist) all arrayed around a single locale could yield an extremely rich reading of the location, and expand agency across demographic groupings.
[The most recent M.A.P. by David Garcia Studio]

Lastly, we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Infinite City by cultural historian Rebecca Solnit, a mapping project of San Francisco.  While we haven’t received it yet and so can’t say much (read here for a good, concise review) we can say that based on her previous work and the glowing endorsements we’ve heard, we are excited.

 [Minard's map of Napolean's march on Moscow just gets better with the conceptual dissection provided by Cartographies of Time]

The proliferation of mapping concepts and explorations seems indicative of a larger trend in landscape (despite Charles Waldheim’s claim in the recent “Coupling” issue of Pamphlet Architecture, we maintain that the confluence society and environment is not “urbanism” but rather landscape).  Situationist Guy DeBord established in the 1967 that ours was a society of spectacle, a fact largely proven true in subsequent decades.  In 1995 Christine Boyer noted:

the representational model for this new urbanism [of which Los Angeles was the apotheosis] of perpetual movement in which fatuous images and marvelous scenes slide along in paradoxical juxtapositions and mesmerizing allusions is the cinema and television, with their traveling shots, jump-cuts, close-ups, and slow motion, their exploited experience of shock and the collisions of their montage effect.

Poignant.  And it begs the question, if the new representational model is not the television or the cinema but rather the map, or the act of mapping, then what is the characterization of our current social condition?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

John Cage and the Mycelium Man

Besides having one of the coolest names of the twentieth century John Cage was a major figure of the 20th century musical avante-garde, perhaps best known as the ‘man who played no notes’ and as the collaborator and partner of the late, great Merce Cunningham

[“Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it.  And no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound”- oh so very Foucault]

Cage's curiosity led him down the strange and twisted path to the fungal kingdom, which inspired him to compose a series of performances pieces under the title “Indeterminancy”; clever little experiments with form, structure and content, often performed while Cunningham's dancers performed- architecture of a kind.  The crossovers and references to Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizome” theories are evident (botanists, please forgive the mixing of metaphors for the moment).  While Deleuze was definitely not a botanist, his effect on contemporary architectural theory is obvious, and comparing the two metaphors would make for an interesting Sunday morning.  We digress; more pertinent is the little known fact that John Cage also co-founded the New York Mycological Society.  Why?

Here at FASLANYC we’ve stated our affinity for the concept of mycorhizal infrastructures and landscape interventions as a methodology for future landscapes.  But we are not interested in mycelium only for their metaphorical implications, but also for their pragmatic applications.  To that end we’ve been perusing Mycelium Running recently.

[mushrooms are awesome.  seriously.  let me tell you how awesome in only 339 short pages]

Now let’s be clear about a few things- the author Paul Stamets is not a very good writer, he isn’t a renowned scientist, he has a company that sells fungal spores in various forms and so has an agenda, and he is a middle-aged hippie living in the Pacific Northwest (conjure stereotypes now).  What is more, the book has neither the utility of a manual or field guide, the authority of an academic or intellectual text, nor the compelling prose of a work of fiction.  That said, we recommend you borrow or buy it.  It’s a great introduction to both the metaphorical and practical applications of fungi, full of anecdotes, citations of scientific studies, suggestions, charts, photographs, half-baked theories (our favorite kind), and well-considered theses.

The book is broken down into three main parts:
Part 1:  The Mycelial Mind- This is where the author spouts some bad, whimsical prose and fills your mind with all sorts of curiosities, fun facts, feel good stories and intellectual drivel.  It’s not bad bathroom reading; right on par with your average architecture publication.
Part 2:  Mycorestoration- more on this in a second
Part 3:  Growing Mycelia and Mushrooms- Here the author rehashes and elaborates on a lot of his earlier work in his book Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms.  This part is useful as a manual.  However, it should stand alone and cost $9; right now it is part of a book that is too heavy to conveniently carry to the field or the shop, and it bumps up the price of the rest of the book.

[mycelial mats digest petroleum, bind heavy metals, and help regulate nutrient and sugar flows between plants of different species.  With all of our emphasis on "thickened surfaces" and "folded planes", perhaps we should consider mycelium]

For our purposes, this is the juicy part.  Stamets defines mycorestoration as “the use of fungi to repair or restore the weakened immune systems of environments.”  This section is broken down perfectly into four chapters:  1) mycofiltrations, 2) Mycoforestry, 3) Mycoremediation, 4) Mycopesticides.  Each of these is an ebullient amalgamation of anecdotal and empirical evidence suggesting myriad new ways to use specific fungi towards specific ends, and each one of these is begging for someone to try it out.  In fact, a lot of the content here is the author doing just that, and then telling you about it whether you’re interested or not.

But there is all manner of interesting information here, told in a way that is accessible.  For instance, the chart on page 92 that lists "Mushrooms with Activity against Chemical Toxins" indicates fungal species that can be used to break down or bind nasty toxins such as benzopyrene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's).  These chemicals are, of course, pervasive in the post-industrial landscapes we fetishize these days.  Useful charts, diagrams, images, and graphs are found all over the place in this section, including a delightful piece on page 102- "mushrooms versus heavy metals- a fight to the death!"

[oyster mushrooms can devour petroleum and other toxins]

We don’t necessarily admire the method for conveying the content.  Nonetheless, Stamets does have a ton of content- data, citations, ideas, questions, concerns- most of it good and interesting.  All of this he raises in an imminently understandable way.  Moreover, the author makes a compelling case that it clear that there is potential here, and the primary limitation thus far is only our lack of interest and understanding (except on the part of the hippies, of course).  The biggest plus- it is immediately evident, right from the outset, that the rat bastard is a huge fan of what he is sharing with you.  And it is interesting.  Perhaps he doesn’t put a lot of time in to becoming a good writer, or figuring out the layout of the book, but that is because there is so much to explore.

In this, and in their love of mushroom, Stamets and Cage are the same.  If we’re comparing, and the other option is an intellectually brilliant, cynical piece whose primary aim is to display the author’s intellectual prowess and ultimately lead to their deification into the nerdy landscape pantheon?  We’ll we take Stamets.