architectural form and political values

yesterday i officially registered as living in berlin. i had an appointment at the rathaus/town hall and on the way back, walked past this ominous-looking building: an office for health.

initially i laughed at how depressing and dry it looked and how that seemed to be the complete opposite to health. but then i realised that it’s an official building and, as such, it needs to look like one.

of course it looks like that. it’s a government department in the serious business of caring for the health of its citizens.

it got me wondering about current architectural form needing to reflect function, rather than reflecting coherence with the public office aesthetic. if all buildings – health, finance, town hall, social security, education all look like official buildings, are they simply read as part of the political fabric and thus a ‘norm’ for the values of that particular society.

and perhaps as opposed to some kind of aesthetic ‘choice’.

i know, this is getting perilously close to facism and facist architecture, but it did get me wondering that
if you get to choose what your education building looks like – if it looks different to, say, the aesthetic of the treasury, then perhaps, as a society, you get to choose whether it has authority or not. it can be dismissed as ‘different’ from where the money sits. for example.

whereas if the treasury and the education department and the health office and the PM’s office look like they’re belonging to the state, then all of those departments and their inherent priorities also belong to the state.

i think i might be suggesting that all government buildings need to look authoritative. i might backflip on that soon, but i had to wonder if there’s something in public architectural form being linked to the form of public values.

apologies to any architects, or architectural writers/researchers for this one – it’s a thought that popped into my head.

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innovation, circulation and repair


my time at ars electronica has been oddly influenced by the book i’m reading. my first proper day strangely resonated with cildo mereiles‘ ideas about circuits and circulation in society – that art can really make a difference in these circuits.

the two main circuits he inserted work into were money (currency) and coca cola distribution, but i had been wondering about what others there were, when i walked into carlo ratti/MIT‘s presentation.

carlo presented two main projects: trash track and sea swarm.

trash track is an older work, based in seattle that seeks to track the removal chain of our consumer products to the same end that the supply chain is tracked (and they don’t like you using their imagery). hundreds of volunteers ‘tracked’ their garbage and ratti presented some stunning video and still visualisations. sadly, when you see these within the wider festival exhibits, you can’t actually find anything more about the products other than a map of where they went. it wasn’t clear (to me at least), whether they were mulched, re-used (like was a paper starbucks cup picked up by a beggar and used to get a bottomless refill?) or taken to a recycling plant, or left to degrade on the streets? perhaps they’re rolling this info out.

but, i think it’s important that this research continues and spreads and gets taken up by as many cities as possible, as an audit of our waste/sanitation circuits. and, it could also be a fantastic tool for some great artforms – manipulating the circuits so that the same cup you threw away ends up on your doorstep every time. or gets redirected to ash keating’s mega installation. or something.


obviously found myself thinking about the use of existing circuits/systems in order to ‘repair’ the environmental, social, financial and philosophical malady of our disposable mindset. and i started with the festival itself.

for the first time, ars electronica was based in a massive, cleared out, ex-industrial space ever-so slightly away from the centre of the city – the old tabakfabric (tobacco factory). aesthetically, acoustically and historically, it was amazing and there was a real ‘collected’ vibe sometimes.

but, in festivals past (when the works were spread between the galleries and spaces throughout the city) we would all eat in existing eateries – paying their staff, using their existing furniture, utensils, toilets, kitchens, systems of disposal/clean-up/supply, use existing public transport modes, discover the smaller details of the city and expand the existing city with people and art.

this time, we hardly went to any of the local cafes or restaurants.

this time, we had special on-site catering (that was mostly expensive and limited), special cutlery/crockery shipped in, disposable beer cups (even with a pfand), extra pop-up kitchens, fridges, kegs and energy supplies, extra portable toilets, extra staff and signage and furniture and lighting.

see where i’m going?

i know that there are different ‘repair’ benefits to a separated, concentrated and contracted ‘festival atmosphere’, but given the discussion about clean-up, technology and all the exhibits about repairing the environment, i couldn’t help but wonder if this festival model itself was not in everyone’s best interest.

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please give a fuck.

Amsterdam Sloterdijk

sorry about the swearing so early in the piece. can’t be helped sometimes.

it’s just a quick rant. in three parts. about private organisations providing public services. or perhaps not, as the case certainly is. in fact, when i grew up, all these industries were owned by the public. then, of course the 1990s happened. and john howard/jeff kennett happened and, well. look what we have now:

banks (financial infrastructure)

my bank charges me $2.50 to use another banks’ teller. then that bank charges me $1.50 because i’m not their customer! what the fuck? last night it was cheaper to buy something at the IGA and get money on EFTPOS, than it was to use the banks’ own infrastructure, to use the banks’ services.

now, i might add, is not a good time for banks to be arseholes. and i know we’ve all whinged, but for god’s sake, i’d like us to actually do something. what the hell is consumer regulation for, if its not preventing this kind of double-dipping. add insult to injury: UK banks don’t charge a thing to use the ATM. in fact, they boast about it!

UPDATE: yes! the public have spoken (as has the ACCC) and banks aren’t allowed to double-dip. they’re still allowed to pillage you with fees, but no double-dipping at least.)

telstra (comms infrastructure)

i broke up with telstra years ago. in fact, as soon as T2 got off the ground and the service took a major dive, i switched teams. not that the others were all that much better, but as government infrastructure/structure/organisation, it was shit.

my mum and my sister kept on. they stayed loyal, believing that a company with years of service would aim to improve over time. nah-uh!

last week i rang my mum and her phone was disconnected. i called her mobile and she was in tears from frustration. they pay their bill automatically – each month – and are always in credit. in fact, telstra recently sent them back a cheque because they were in credit so much. telstra switches their systems and suddenly the money is not paying for the bill (but turning into a rebate cheque, douchebag) and their account goes into the red, while my mum calls the offshore call centre, trying to get an answer. being told that they have to pay the bill before the discrepancy with their credit (ie, telstra’s fuck-up) gets fixed. then, still not able to speak to anyone who knows what the hell is going on, each time getting a different answer, but the same runaround, the number gets disconnected and my mum becomes homicidal. and, the problem still isn’t sorted.

not only that fucking appalling example of service, but they are in serious fucked-up land at the moment and i can’t believe that the ombudsman, the ACCC, the australian people in general and the government aren’t on their heiny! here’s the awesome timeline of events for the once-public company:

government brings in big-gun CEO, govt sells majority share and goes public. telstra focus all their resources into a decent dividend. cut costs by going off shore. worsening service, customers leave. no money coming in, so the service gets worse. exploit cheap foreign labour, local workers get sacked. CEO breaches contract, gets A$20 million pay out, share price drops and the shareholders are fucked. how shit is that!

this is what happens when public infrastructure (ie, communications cabling, workers’ skills, telephone poles, manholes, switchboards, mainframes – the whole lot) goes from being owned by the taxpayer. to being shared between people who can afford to buy it (when they say ‘public’, they mean, open to purchase by those not directors. it isn’t owned by the wider public). interests are privatised and the wider public are disempowered in the machinations of their own lives.

connex (transport infrastructure)

i know that many have ranted about the bastard lovechild of jeff kennett and an inflated ego, but you can’t talk about failing private – public infrastructure without mentioning the trainwreck that is connex (at least in this state).

i don’t think any amount of spin is going to improve their image, and given that the contract is up for tender v. soon, it will be interesting to see what happens with public transport in melbourne in the near future.

unfortunately, given the lack of money everywhere, financing major capital works and infrastructure is going to be harder than ever, but i really don’t think melbourne/victoria will cope with current population growths without drastic improvements. the eddington report was a pile of shite and has done nothing to ease the pain of catching public transport. in fact, i praise some kind of higher being on a daily basis that i am a cyclist and only have to go near P(M)T on the weekends while visiting the parentals.

looking through the World Transit Maps book the other day, i couldn’t help but being completely confused how a city like Hamburg, with a population of 1.8 million, can have a good, integrated system for half our population? i know that Germany itself has a larger population, but the transport system is still state-based.

I don’t know what it takes to nationalise privatised infrastructure, but if it’s at all possible to do, i think now is a most-excellent time to do so. at least for the trains. private partnerships can still exist for electronic ticketing systems (will they just get the oyster team in here please?) and labour, but the inability for a private company to maintain cohesion with the public is so obvious at the moment that it’s embarrassing. in fact, the only thing that the government and connex have to thank for the continually bursting peak trains is that petrol prices, environmental awareness and inflation have been successful in encouraging people to reduce their reliance on cars. pity the government hasn’t been able to pick that one up.

more importantly, all of these public ‘institutions’ which have become private ‘firms’ have been allowed to fall by the wayside because the level of ownership by the politic has been complacent. I would love to see Australians actually give a shit about their systems and infrastructure and take action, vote, write to local members, protest, whinge to the Herald-Sun or 3AW if you have to. But make some goddamn noise about it and become accountable for the state in which we live, and stop being whining victims – it’s s000 19th Century.

image credit: amsterdam sloterdijk by just a guy who likes to take pictures

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art in the public space lectures

today was a full day of good infostuff. the presentation by anthony mcinnerny about public art in the suburbs and its place there was excellent and highlighted the stereotypes of suburbia, looked at the shopping mall as a interesting public/private place and discussed artistic engagement on freeways. all fascinating.

but the highlight of the day was the discussion about art and public transport. talk about a fucking minefield of discussion! and of course, i was quiet and didn’t utter a word.

topics covered included:

artists’ engagement in developing the system of transport, through design and lateral thinking, as opposed to just adorning or beautifying a failing infrastructure.

stations as community hubs – which seemed pretty obvious to me, especially after time spent in germany and austria, where of course they’ve embraced their hauptbahnof and you can shop, eat, sleep, drink coffee, surf the web, store your shit, everything there. also discussion about the roles of libraries in stations as a way to implant stations within ordinary social fabric.

• heated discussion about graffiti as art and the money spent removing graffiti. some crazy broad suggested leaving the graffiti on the lines for a year, fostering it and seeing what happens when you allow the graffiti artists’ subculture to self-govern, given that writers have an inbuilt learning process and skill-set heirarchy that is rarely tapped into.

• looking at the role of performance and new media works within transport systems. the grand central station (and possibly flinders st station) freeze as an example, as well as the other end of the spectrum, where you fuck people’s shit up – make it totally unbearable to watch the flow-on effect from that.

• how a distorted art, in the form of muzak, is being used to punish citizens as a result of drug dealing around Frankston station and the idea of resulting alientation from public ‘ownership’ of such a space.

• looking at the misconceptions and preconceptions of convenience within a car-centric culture and whether art has a place in re-educating, or whether other aspects of transport need fixing first.

‘anti-social’ versus ‘socially acceptable’ imagery (ie, graffiti, vs paid advertising) and how the use of public space and infrastructure is privileged by consumerism and revenue, rather than by public consensus or common good.

plus some other juicy and faskinating points that i can’t remember right now. it was a really vital discussion and considering that, in victoria, the transport minister and the arts minister are one and the same, it will (hopefully) be an area in which there is far more discussion and development. god knows that melbourne needs some serious surgery in this area.

for a super-fab article on public transport infrastructure in australia, also check out dan hill’s shinkansen piece. brilliant.

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