Bryan Finoki is the editor of Subtopia since 2004. He investigates the relationship between politics and space and represents one of the most relevent intellectuals in this field of research.
Interview accomplished during February 2010
Léopold Lambert: Whenever somebody talks about control apparatuses in the city, one immediately evokes technologies such as surveillance cameras or sensors. However those devices seem to me as representing the control much more than actually applying it. What I mean is that they do not avoid anything to happen; they just act on people’s imaginaries in order to activate self-censorship in them, aware of the fact that they are being monitored. On the contrary, architecture in its physicality seems to me much more able to organize space in order to apply a whole set of control on it. My intuition is that architecture is never innocent. By that, I do not mean that each spatiality has been necessarily thought and designed as a political weapon but rather than this status is inherent to architecture and cannot be avoided.
To which extent could you agree to that?
Bryan Finoki: Absolutely – this obsession with “panoptic urbanism” and the iconic CCTV camera that hangs over the doorways and upon every building in the “civil” world like some empire of miniature cops waiting around the corners eager to make an arrest, has become more symbolic and quasi-theological than anything else. Those cameras are like the new iconography of power – church crosses, Roman statues – now made into miniature figurines of “networked power”. Symbolic of the state’s desperation to create a ubiquitous illusion of control, an ever-expanding projection of power, the ‘society of spectacle’ and the infinite eyeballs of God converging in the governance of what geographer Steve Graham calls ‘architectures of control’. It is security as the spectacle itself, “security theater’ as Bruce Schneier first called it – which on one hand allays certain mass fears while on the other hand only engineers new mutant mass-hysteria. This engineered mass hysteria is of course very linked with cultural modes of coercing consumerism and the tactics of fear, fear as a technology which is used to get people to feed into the economy of hyper-capitalism.
The fact that a lot of those surveillance cams don’t even work, and that people are self-censored (as you say) by the mere suggestion is ancient psychology by now; classic Sun Tzu ‘art of war’ deception stuff, and here architecture is but the facet for this mythological nervous system that lives and breathes within our infrastructure, watching us, preying on our every move; a fantasy of surveillant power and of a system that dreams of keeping vigilance over our very thought processes themselves. The architecture here simply baits one into social obedience, conforms one into the subservient of a false market of state control.
Power thrives mostly because it goes unchecked and is able to project a simulation of itself that reaches far beyond its actual measure. There is a visual economy to surveillance that constantly intimidates us into voluntarily surrendering to its gaze. The hollow circuitry of the CCTV scam archives a culture of total complicity, from the architecture’s buttressing of power to the citizen’s hand over. Many studies have concluded that all these cams do little to actually prevent crime.
Certainly, I also agree with your assessment that the physicality of architecture is more dangerous as a form of social control because we are talking about physical space, that which inherently not only takes up a set of coordinates on the map and occupies physical dimensions of our existence, but also generally requires another political and economic landscape in order to legislate and get it built within the coded world of urban planning, construction codes, private development, all of which exist mostly far out of the hands of the public, and to which public opinion if often thrown in late at the end by token protocol, and so forth. Not to mention, how geographies are largely defined out of economic models dealing with race and class relations. American urbanism is perhaps as genocidal as it has always been, though the parameters and definitions of this have changed, and so the killing isn’t as egregious anymore. It is more akin to the colonial legacy of internment and modern incarceration. Architecture in this regard enters in at many levels, from the design of prisons to the frontlines of urban gentrification, and so on – how the physical landscape if built, through which so many socio-economic and political legal forces are negotiated. I think architecture is inherently violent and intense.
I am also a strong believer that the boundaries and power of architecture extends beyond those physical spaces that have been designed and built by architects, but also is embodied by spaces that end up more or less de facto in the urban environment; these would be seemingly inconsequential architectures, emergent spaces, default containers of power: architecture not by formal design but as the product of other agendas and actors that just give way to space in their own processing of power through the built environment. Such spaces, as innocuous as they may be (a squatters’ colony), or as dangerous as they are clandestine (interrogation rooms), in my mind amount to another vast dimension of physical space that rarely gets discussed; that is, this notion that the environment can be harnessed as a weapon beyond normal oversight, either in a very egregious way through post-9/11 urban fortress design, or in the seamy folds of space where jurisdictions are less pronounced, in spaces of non-descript context which then can be used for the purposes of carrying out certain political objectives or crimes, like torture. Insidious under-the-radar pawn spaces in the age of hyper-urban geopolitics. Unassuming space that becomes the beacon for the distribution of power through more covert means. And, on the other side of the spectrum — everyday space as camouflage for normalizing militarization. While architecture in a formal way has always existed in some close relation to power and defense, these sub-architectural spaces (spaces that haven’t been designed for defense so much as they have been co-opted by the dominions of defense, and the spatial logic of the war machine) are equally deputized to expand some notion of policing, some notion of suspending the law in favor of unilateral limitless superpower.
Léopold Lambert: The situationnists were affirming that the only architectural operation that could be considered as a resistance towards an institutional power is its actual destruction. Would you agree with that –which is pretty much the same than saying that architecture is always linked to this type of power- or do you rather think that an architecture that owns some resistive values in its physicality is actually possible?
Bryan Finoki: I am very curious about the notion of the subversive architect, one that uses architectural design and innovation to game the system, to get around certain political constraints, or to help recalibrate the urban environment in some way that currently operates at a level of injustice, or illogic. I don’t think architecture is so intertwined with power that it cannot be trusted on any level and therefore cannot exist. But, I am interested in how architects can perhaps use their skills and knowledge and the value of architecture as a political art, as a space of urban negotiation with institutional power, to in effect bring changes about spatially on their own, to force new balances of power, to in effect establish dialogs with power through the medium of design that can challenge the institution in some way. I guess (and probably due some to the fact I am not an architect but always thought I would go on to become one) that I still have this vision of running around with a stealthy team of architectural hackers that bring some level of public space reclamation and power renegotiation through built space interventions. But not subversive for subversive’s sake, rather making adjustments to the built environment that relieve space of certain blockages of flow and ethicality. Spaces that need to be relieved of their pulsing commodification, their innate exclusionary principles; architectural acupuncture, architects in the practice of restoring a kind of level of ethical tolerance to space, etc.
All of this can be done I think in the open, too. This doesn’t have to be a group of secret space hackers. But, hacking and restoring justice in a spatial sense seems a ripe job for the architect, who not only may have an opportunity to bring some sensible level of change to the landscape which the institution has prevented all along, but an opportunity to help wrestle control of the very meaning of architecture out from under the dominant thumb of wealth division and power, and the politics of secrecy which seem to colonize space without much dispute or even public awareness.
Léopold Lambert: Your answer raises a difficult question that I still did not settle on yet, which is about the legal status of a resistive architectural proposition and thus its degree of violence. This position towards the law can be, I believe, summarized with three various examples: The first one is Teddy Cruz’s which establishes a negotiation with the institutional power, the second one comes from Santiago Cirugeda who takes advantage of the law’s tiny faults and imprecision and eventually the last one consists in an illegal status which could be illustrated by Max Rameau’s action. Those three attitudes have both benefits and inconvenience. A strictly legal action which effect is fully understood by the institution is very often long or even impossible to obtain but has the potentiality of acquiring a real stability and durability. On the contrary Max Rameau’s civic disobedience that reclaims non-occupied speculative land in order to host homeless people appears as a very efficient and expressive action but remains constantly susceptible to be suppressed by authorities. Cirugeda’s game with legality thus seems as a good equilibrium between those two positions; however it requires an extensive knowledge of the law and allows only to operate in an extremely narrow field of possibilities.
Do you have a clear attitude towards those three possibilities or are you as indecisive as I am?
Bryan Finoki: I think all are equally noble and applicable depending on the circumstances. There is no one strategy, per se, or even one overarching strategy – if the objective is to develop a means for brokering social and economic equality through space then I think there can be a role for the architect in every spatial context, as each scenario comes with its own unique constraints and injustices that perhaps the architect can help to address.
Architecture is not only a political act but is the medium through which politics is in effect mediated – this demands an entire spectrum of spatial practices and practitioners that can navigate the global landscapes of the built environ, so architects or ‘architecture’ must constantly find ways of reinventing itself in striving to reclaim and redefine the political. With every new context of “spatial injustice” (for lack of a better term), comes the need for a specific deployment of spatial practice that can engage it. Of course, it depends on how one wants to engage the power structure, and at which level, angle, etc. I think the three architects you have mentioned are probably all making positive impacts but are not immune to critique either, and that is a good thing. I don’t want to believe that there can be such a righteous spatial practice. There can be no formula for spatial justice, if you will. It needs to be exercised in these types of ongoing architectural negotiations of power – change and justice itself must find itself on a constantly evolving axis. Nor do I think that spatial justice can be merely cemented by architecture alone. Just as the military urbanists are out to take total control of the city through the ruling principles of security as they can be substantiated and enforced through the landscape, not only do I not know if that is even possible but I don’t think the opposite could hold true either – that a utopian space could ever, or should ever, exist. It is all about mediating the constant conflict, keeping the scales tipped on the side of fairness; accepting and defusing the inherent violence of the built environment. Perhaps true democracy is always one degree from collapsing and ceasing to be an open system. That is, if democracy becomes so systematic and guaranteed by a system of justice alone, and the law and its checks and balances become stagnant somehow, then perhaps democracy ceases to exist. I don’t know. I come from the school of thought that democracy can only exist as it is exercised and maintained, and this wages its own kind of battle. The politics of space aren’t so stable either. As Steve Graham asks, if a ‘secured city’ is the model, then what are we headed for? A Singapore model of restricted urbanism, sanitary capitalist space with elegant fists of iron looming in the background?
Spatial politics is its own kind of ether. I mean, it’s messy, full of gradients and ambiguity, and may not be so easily calculated by a system of governance as we would like to imagine it. A student I worked with in San Diego speculated on perhaps creating a kind of zoning system that might measure the ethics of space and enforce certain standards, from debates around tolls for public restroom access to the ways neighborhoods are zoned. To see a homeless person on the street then becomes an ethical question – and perhaps a way to take responsibility about urban homelessness and get serious about really trying to systematically address since it is not a practical urban econ question but an ethical one put more seriously in broader measure for what kinds of spaces we are building, tolerating, and setting new standards about which types of spaces might be intolerable in a larger societal point of view.
But its not as easy as simply zoning everything. While I might choose to accept for now that the realm of ‘spatial politics’ always operates to some extent on a sub-political level, I do think there is an entire spectrum of spatial legality that needs to be mapped, more so for understanding’s own sake than any belief that the domain of spatial politics can ever be fully governed, or provide governance. It is more spontaneous and chaotic than that.
This spectrum (from the architect’s perspective) would need to look at more literal architectural provocations of social empowerment through design and building code, but would also include the ways the practice must perhaps reconstruct the course of its education, or new ways it engages communities who aren’t paying customers, and to think about the visual politics and the economic structuring that architecture puts into the built environment. I think architects have a lot to offer outside the scope of design/build.
But from point of view of this spectrum itself it would be much larger, and would look at everything through a spatial lens. I think what’s most interesting for me is architecture’s potential for helping to mobilize and maneuver within all of this. The architect is already situated between the public, private, and institutional sectors of power. So, if everything can be diagnosed on some level spatially and we get everyone talking about the architectural relativity of their own micro universes and personal geographies, and see the inherent political struggle within the spatial contexts of their lives, then I think people would be more willing to acknowledge their own role and ability to help unravel and reclaim the public domain. Let’s face it – we are facing ever increasing compressions of space by forces of privatization. You have to be concerned about what public agency is being sacrificed in all of this.
So, the question for me is: how can the architect help initiate projects that enfold the subjects of geography and political theory, activism, industrial history, cartography and neuroscience, education, art, social justice, etc. – overlays that can be explored to somehow make the intolerable ethical limits of our environment more apparent, and to call attention to critical urban issues like rampant privatization, subtle partitioning – domestic enclosure and segregation.
All of which probably must start with some acknowledgement of architecture’s complicity in constructing this uneven landscape – and the bare politicality of architecture as a cubic measure of politics. Can architecture in a sense ever be politically ungendered? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Can it even be neutral? Not sure. But I like the idea of the architect creating spaces that allow for the public to appropriate them and to retain some agency in the self-powered production of their own space. To politicize them in their own way. Lebbeus gets at all of this, particularly with his proposals for “free spaces.”
Because the architect can be a translator and an interpreter of space, s/he also helps narrate, moderate, and modulate the space so that it can be optimized or tuned like a fine instrument in order for the public realm to act as an effective ethical register of distributed power.
Léopold Lambert: You were talking earlier of those insidious under-the-radar pawn spaces; I tend to call those spaces heterotopias following Foucault in this regard. The interesting aspect of them is the fact that they can either be spaces of pure oppression or resistive zones. I don’t think that what happens in those heterotopias or even the fact of their existence have to be confronted by any ethics or morals; the main issue here is the fact that in some of them –the ones you were talking about- people are being forced to enter those zones.
In your opinion, is this distinction enough to recognize the oppressive heterotopias from the resistive ones?
Bryan Finoki: I am not sure. My gut reaction, it can’t be that reductive. Oppressive/Resistive, Just/Unjust, etc. I think there is violence in the very paradigm itself: that is, the enclosing, privatizing, the perverse hierarchicalizing of space, the camp-ification now legally suspended of the law itself that Agamben describes. Why are there resistive zones in the first place? Because they are resisting the oppressive ones? It is surely more complex than that. I like what Deborah Natsios was saying the other day, that this is not simply the carceral spreading itself out on some new pervasive level. This is about creating spaces of exclusion where people already stand, zoning them out of access, which then in turn forces them through other spaces of exclusion and control in their quest to better their lot. In my view, this is a kind of hydrology of forced eviction that meets the islanding of spatial exception. To Natsios’ point, this is not the same as the carceral strategy because at least the prison (in principle) operates with the intention of reform, even though that is a loaded term and includes its own critique as Foucault has given us.
But, with the prison comes still an investment in the inmate, if theologically as a savior of his polluted soul, and as part of a larger ideal of a justice system. Of course, as much as prisons theoretically aim to reform and return the inmate back to society, they are also places set up to permanently remove others. It can’t be this black and white. Ultimately, through the prison, the inmate is both bound to the system but also disenfranchised within in, left in a kind of legal limbomania. What is going on now both within the city and beyond is in some ways worse than the prison, because it encloses the way a prison does but without the responsibilities and obligations of prisons. It is prison space without even the flimsy legal standards of prisons. A prison without having to be held accountable as a prison.
These ‘other’ spaces turning up everywhere (in the form of refugee camps, war prisons, migration zones, geographies of torture) help maintain a global surplus population of biopolitically powerless bodies and keep them beyond the reach of the so-called Global North, or the developed world. With the prison industrial complex cashing in on detention facilities worldwide and infrastructures of incarceration, this is less like a global prison and more like the sublegal urbanism of apartheid on a global scale. Reform has been abandoned. There are only pixilated lines of inner and outer spaces of inclusion and exclusion spread across the planet, connected by blurry zones of shared space and transfer. This indexing of space is dangerous in how it projects a certain view onto the Third world, how it imagines an identity and then restricts them to geographies of spatial fallout where they cannot be included based on this projection. This is pre-emptive spatial apartheidism now.
In terms of distinguishing between oppressive and resistive heterotopias, I think I am struggling with the idea that spaces produced out of fear of the other and superimposed onto people ideally would not exist, but Agamben’s camp-fix seems pretty accurate, in so far as we are all the subjects of different forms of camps now that seem extended from other deeper forms of political violence – from torture camps to social media-tribes – so how do we de-campify? I am not sure if that is even the question. Or, is it merely a matter of how we chose to create our own camps, to occupy the space of the camp, reoccupy, colonize and decolonize the camps and ex-camps for our own resistive agendas? To move the politics of the camp into a greater matrix of spatial openings and connections – building our own network now. I am interested how spaces can be configured spacio-politically in order to preserve some degree of public transparency. With these oppressive zones come new layers of secrecy that exist at core institutional levels, and that needs to be routed. However, again, I think various strategies should apply, and in some cases de-militarizing the exceptional heteroptopias is as much the goal as perhaps arming our own configured heterotopias. Perhaps, that is to suggest there is another kind of militancy in de-militarization, a necessary violence in nonviolence, and at times variations of violence might be perfectly justified. I don’t know. As time goes on for me the idea that spatial violence could be justified becomes increasingly less easy to discern. Again, an entire taxonomy of heterotopiacal space as it relates to political violence should be drawn, and our actions should be taken with an understanding and consideration for the larger history of spatial violence and on what occasions it has and has not been justified, and then perhaps from there we begin to establish our own logic.
Léopold Lambert: I just read for the second time the interview you did with Stephen Graham in 2007. I find it very interesting as much for the quality of your questions as his answers; however something disturbed me in the way Graham speaks about the wall as a former paradigm of control, the sensor being the new one. It brings us back to the first question, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on what you call the age of the checkpoint which, I think, is indeed linked to architecture’s physicality since checkpoints necessitate a system of enclosure and controlled gates.
Bryan Finoki: The checkpoint has evolved. Sure, in many places it is still very much a rudimentary barbed wire installation in the middle of the road controlled by one militant group to admit the passages of other designated categories of people. Now, we have biometric surveillance, RFID tags, GPS chips, bureaucratic forms of approvals, corporate permissions. We have nano-particles to surveillance the flow of fluids and the geographies of energy. Spyware is designed to bypass the online checkpoints of privacy, viruses and memes spread information through networks of unwanted space. The global information age has turned the city into a subversive technology system for routing flows of data, capital, and people. Everything now has become subject to a type of surveillance – everything is being converted into surveilled objects in a Total surveillatopia — and while we still have the physical barricades to prevent the trespass of bodies, we have other forms of checkpoints now to prevent the infiltration of unwanted data, to control the pipelines of capital, etc. There is now the military urbanism of disentangling the wanted flows from the unwanted flows and controlling these highly interlaced circulations of everything that cross legal and illegal, formal and informal boundaries all the time. Graham talks about this – the new military urbanism and its militarization of this soft infrastructure; the apartheid of data and capital flows.
But for me, it’s gotten to the point where the surveillance systems now need their own forms of surveillance. Where the checkpoints need their own system of external and internal checkpoints. It’s getting totally absurd. The prism of space through which the security utopian looks through has to imagine an infinite unfolding of safe space, myriad securitization. A kaleidoscope of checkpoints. Layers and layers and layers of security. It is of course a total impossibility, but the logic of the checkpoint is completely rabid and while it doesn’t eat itself it certainly folds in on itself and outwards in its spawning objective of trying to lay claim to every square inch of space on this planet. It is like some surveillance form of sovereignty. The checkpoint is not that pawn space. Although, I also think that as citizens of a democracy this surveillance apparatus needs to be equally watched, and perhaps people need to establish their own forms of checkpoints that can monitor the encroach and trespass of the surveillance machine. Reflective checkpoints, surveilling the shadows, democracy needs its own system of checks and balances, and while the Pentagon is obsesses with colonizing every sphere of our daily life as a politically vigilant society I think this demands our own sousveillant apparatus that can allow us to check power when it needs to be, to stop and ask the feds for their ID’s when appropriate. The offensive posture of the security landscape needs to be turned against itself where it has overstepped its respect for the civil. So, the checkpoint becomes the bargaining chip for both private and public agency in this sense. And we need to construct a strategy for preserving political transparency, for forcing the government to be accountable when it needs to be, and removing the unnecessary checkpoints; de-architecturalizing the security scape.