This was an event I went to looking for ideas to steal. Since I didn’t go as a reporter, didn’t have my ‘must get everything down’ hat on, this is more a disconnected set of notes than a useful story. The idea for the project was to give four brilliant academics from diverse fields free reign to do research, and see what they come up with. They decided to focus on the ways the military industrial complex had affected the Bay area. In their own words:

… Situated Systems, an experimental, collaborative, site-specific research project which explores military and industrial infrastructure in San Francisco and the Bay Area, investigating how this history has shaped the technology culture of the region and its outputs.

(found here)

Deb Chandra summarized it in four words: Atemporality, Illegibility, Visibility, and Materiality. The idea that appealed to me most was that of materiality, that “As soon as you instantiate objects, they start to interact with the environment they’re in,” as my notes say; pretty sure that was a quote from Chandra’s presentation.

I love the idea that the things that happen leave traces; sometimes it’s a crane, but more often than not it’s a superfund site. One of the outputs was a map which talks a lot about where these things are, and some of the history. There were also a lot of hand-held pieces at the show, with more extensive research than is in the map captions. All interesting, even if some of it I already knew.

So, the setup: a 20x40 white box of a room, projector on one wall, and several tables around the room, up against the walls, with different bits of art on them. There were also photos, printed on canvas, hung above the tables. About 30 chairs took up the center of the room, for people to sit during the talks.

The first table I looked at was zine printed with a laser cutter on plywood. It was meant to be housed in a heavy welded steel box. Nice welds. Of course, at this point I wasn’t thinking of a write up or even really thinking at all, so I don’t have any pictures of them (I am a terrible reporter, but in my defense, I was also super awkward, having not been at an event like this ever before). There was a sign on the table, encouraging people to handle the objects.

The next table had several 3d-printed models of large machine tools, along with little workers, standing at them for scale. Again, I super wish I had gotten photos of them; again, I’m a terrible correspondent. In the moment, I was much more interested in the people around, but also super bad at introducing myself.

I didn’t get a feeling of value judgements coming from the work, but rather a recognition that history is complex. The presentation of facts seemed to be equal parts wonder (the old tools, the Bay Model, etc.) and horror (number of superfund sites we’ve created in a population center). It’s equally possible that I’m not familiar with the context, and getting it wrong. But, there was this interesting meta-idea that I took from a conversation with Deb Chandra: that this work gives greater context to the places I see all the time. The building we were in, Pier 9, used to be a military installation. When you look across the water from there, you can see Treasure Island and Alameda, both decommissioned, both poisoned. But you’re also in a place that couldn’t exist without all that activity to support technological growth.

A series of disconnected notes:

To read:

  • Situated Knowledges (Haraway) – referred to as one of their ‘patron saints’. I was only dimly aware of her work previously.
  • All of their zines – there are only two up currently, but they did four. I assume they’ll upload pdfs eventually.
  • Their bibliography – They’re a bunch of academics, of course they did up a bibliography. You could do worse than work down their list of reading.
  • Tinyletter – where I presume they’ll be sending out info as more stuff comes online.

Also, they’ve given me a list of places to visit: (if any of my bay area friends want to field trip, get @ me):

Look, just anywhere on their delightful map.