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July 11, 2009

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Invisible Infrastructure

Britta Gustafson, “Learning to see wooden poles”:

When Iím not in a rush to get somewhere, I look up at the tops of telephone poles. I donít know anything about electricity, but I find myself reading glossaries of linemenís slang and technical definitions, learning how to refer to the grey buckets that transform electricity for home use (cans, bugs, distribution transformers) and how to identify several other pole features, especially different varieties of shiny ceramic insulators.

It’s a really nice photo-essay, with little detours about the pleasures of walking, childhood memories of the Mister Rogers crayon factory documentary, and generally finding joy in “functional and authentic technical equipment, the more elaborate and less appreciated the better.”

My grandfather was (and my uncle is) a lineman for Detroit Edison, so like Britta, I find power lines really fascinating. The general tendency of this century has been to make our infrastructure and industrial more invisible and remote, even as it becomes more individualized and less communal. (Think about riding a train versus driving a car.) Utility lines, when you notice them, spell out the lie in all that. Of course, they’re most conspicuous when they stop working. (Actually, they’re really conspicuous when they’re knocked over in a shower of sparks and flame, but that’s a special case.)

One of my favorite parts in Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb is when R. Crumb explains how he takes photographs of ordinary buildings and street corners - apartments, gas stations, strip malls - so he can use them as reference for adding details like telephone and electrical poles, junction boxes, gutter grates. Otherwise, he says, you forget about these things; it’s as if they were never there.

Posted July 11, 2009 at 10:07 | Comments (8) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Cities, Design, Object Culture, Recommended, Technosnark


Yay! I find utility lines even a little overwhelming now that I look directly at them. They're dark and heavy and everywhere.

There's a whole little subculture of people who really like thinking about infrastructure: people who visit the Center for Land Use Interpretation and buy Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape (a lovely book), some of the readers of BLDGBLOG and City of Sound.

It's funny you mentioned BLDGBLOG, b/c I had thought about digging up the Bloomsday post to add this bit in relation to yours today:

"That daydream you had early today? That was, Ulysses suggests, part of the infrastructure of the city you live in.

"The city here becomes a kind of experiential labyrinth: it is something you walk through, certainly, but it is also something that rears up mythically to consume the thoughts of everyone residing within it."

Anyways, BG, this is why you should have written "industrial literacy" (or something) for New Liberal Arts. Design was originally going to be in there. Maybe we should do a whole follow-up just about Design.

Like trainspotting: cablespotting?

BLDGBLOG is so good! In my classes about the metropolis, we've talked a lot about how the city is equally the physical place where you live and walk + a phantasmagoria, your imaginary version of the city consisting of dreams and memories and idealized stories (which is part of the collective imagination shared by everyone who thinks about that city).

I like how NLA turned out; a couple days ago I was thinking about how an entry called "Pathmaking" could fit in — noticing and improving one's ways of city walking, web surfing, friendmaking, library research, and other kinds of pathmaking.

I've been thinking a lot about the city and language - there are so many metaphors comparing language to a city, but also how the city itself becomes this site of reading, especially in the nineteenth century - proliferation of billboards, signage, etc. - but of course there has always been graffiti...

Anyways, if the urban flaneur is the one who strolls the city to see and be seen, it's equally true that he goes out to read and be read... and it's this synthesis of private and public reading, the street sign and the newspaper, "one should always have something sensational to read on the train."...

I love the fact that you bring billboards & street signs into the equation, Tim. That's /really/ where a city talks to itself -- moreso than any newspaper ever was.

And it's a public education! I remember happily reading billboards & storefronts from the backseat of the car as a very little kid -- it was endlessly entertaining.

I also love your point, Britta, about the city being part (or even mostly) fantasy. I mean, it pretty much /has/ to be, b/c any given person -- even a long-time resident -- sees so little of it.

I'm reminded of an old project where a bunch of people living in Amsterdam were outfitted with GPS trackers for several weeks. You can see some of the resulting maps for individuals here. (And I know lots of people have done things like this; this one was one of the first I saw & it's stuck with me.)

To me, the personal maps all have a characteristic look: the main trunk line between home and work glows white-hot, and then there's a little fuzz of side-paths spiking out here and there, much fainter gray. So really, our direct physical experience of any city is a single well-trod corridor -- with little loops of adventure thrown in every so often.

We also talk in my classes about "reading" the city - how learning to live in a city is mostly learning how to interpret all the various sign systems (from street signs to shop windows to gang tags) and how to read different kinds of people who might be friendly or dangerous, etc. (In other words, I really need to write a blog post about what I've learned in my city classes.)

I also remember learning about how Dada artists borrowed from both the fine art tradition and the words on the advertisements and magazines in the city around them.

It's cool to hear about that GPS project; I actually did something like it but in an analog way: a map of three summers in the Bay Area — the commute paths are the strongest, of course, but the map covers a time period where I lived in several different places so my range might be a little broader than usual. As an aside, I would guess that people who live in cities tend to move homes and change jobs more often than people who live in small towns or the countryside.

Maybe we should put together a selected reading list. One essay I love is Johanna Drucker's "Language in the Landscape."

Roland Barthes somewhere talks about reading/writing as cruising - living in the city one is always cruising and being cruised.

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