Representing the Environment: Mark Wasiuta shares with Daniel Roche
The 20th century according to Peter Sloterdijk began on a specific day: April 22, 1915—when German soldiers introduced chlorine gas into the military theater in Northern France. This manoeuvre marked a significant moment in military history: a shift from classical warfare to modern terrorism, or what Sloterdijk calls “atmoterrorism” and the birth of “environmental thinking”.1 Sloterdijk writes: “The 20th century will be remembered as the period whose decisive idea consisted in targeting not the body of the enemy, but his environment.”2
“Environmental thinking” was immersed into architectural consciousness in a lecture delivered by Josep Lluís Sert, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in 1953. In describing Sert’s lecture, Alexander D'Hooghe writes, “Sert observed the weakness of the architectural object, which has been disarmed by the overwhelming scale of what surrounds it: infrastructures, networks, and mass productions. The city had bypassed the architectural object.”3
As a response to the heightened awareness to this rather new, anthropocentric, invention of the “environment”—design educators Catherine Bauer and William Wurster created a new type of school: the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. The CED was the combination of three pre-existing departments (the school of architecture, the school of planning, and the school of landscape architecture) into one department. The raison d’être behind the combination of these three schools into one was to teach students about a “comprehensive planned approach to environmental development, the application of social criteria to solve social problems, and team efforts of all professions that have a bearing on the total environment.”4
Eight years after the opening of the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley in 1959, Yale created its Master of Environmental Design program in 1967. In a recent exhibition, “Environment, Reconsidered,” curators describe the MED program as offering “a radically new way to understand and study the built environment in an architecture school setting by proposing a new object of study: an ‘environment’ comprised not only of masterpiece architecture, but of structures of all kinds, as well as infrastructure, technological systems, natural elements, symbolic systems, and the forces that shape this new totality.”5
When we use this word “environment”, what do we mean by it? Where does this word come from? Objective representation of the “environment” is virtually impossible in a text or image. The word itself lacks a single or unifying definition, varying in meaning depending upon whom you ask. The representation of the environment is critical, however, to the potential intervention within it. How, then, do we represent something that mankind, collectively, physically and mentally gives shape to that, inversely, shapes us?
Environmental Communications, a Venice Beach collective from the late 1960s, was perhaps an indirect product of the paradigmatic shift that occurred within academia, beginning with Sert’s proclamation in 1953, rooted in the belief that “the architectural object has been disarmed by the overwhelming scale of what surrounds it: infrastructures, networks, and mass productions.”6
Once described as Los Angeles’ “Instagram of the 1970s,”7Environmental Communications invented a radical methodology known as “environmental photography”—used for the representation of the material and immaterial infrastructures, jurisdictions, and networks that they sought to expose and counteract; or what Mark Wasiuta calls “the social structures of environmental control.”8
Curator, architect, and co-director of the M.S. Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia GSAPP; Wasiuta currently researches the Environmental Communications collective and explores this enigmatic concept of “environment” in its totality in his practice and teaching.
Daniel Roche: What does this word “environment” mean to you?
Mark Wasiuta: Like all that it signifies, the word environment is somewhat ungraspable. Environment is a primary concern of 20th-century thought. Yet, across its different theorizations, applications, and interpretations, it has anything but a single or unifying definition. It is associated with ecological movements, media communications, notions of territory, and human habitats. In architecture it once referenced the study of human behavior and social interaction. This is to say that environment has an unstable identity, and even a contested history in the last century.
Many of the projects Marcos Sanchez and I have worked on together [Instructions for the Reconstitution of Historical Smog, Environmental Communications: Contact High, Air Mexico, and others] attempt to think through some of the implications of this instability and grapple with the ways in which environment—as historical term, as contemporary problem, as linked to both experimental and professional practice—seems to lie past and exceed architecture understood in its most conventional sense. We started work on these projects a decade ago. One motivation was to swerve away from the figuration of environment that by then was subsumed by a technocratic rhetoric of sustainability. Environment was much larger, more interesting, and stranger than that narrow application suggested. It was theoretically densely articulated and yet elusive. It was also more conflicted—aligned with military technologies, coded by communications, and infiltrated by ideas that linked it to behavior, psychology, public health, and toxicity. It was expansive and encompassing, ubiquitous and often invisible.
DR: Where does Marshall McLuhan appear in this context?
MW: In the 1960s an anxiety hovered around the environment. Especially for architecture, we can discern two distinct and opposing claims. The first of these was that the environment was something we were affecting—that human activity was understood to alter, impact, transform—but we were not certain how. The second is that the environment was also something that affected us—our behavior, health, survival—but we were not exactly sure how this worked either.
McLuhan was the diagnostician of the latter. Like other and later media theorists, many indebted to McLuhan, he recognized that the media that permeated the airwaves, that entered our homes, and that we saw or heard formed an environment, and that this environment conditioned us. In addition to the media we turned our attention to, he suggested that we are also conditioned by messages and media that we aren’t conscious of or consciously attuned to. Additionally, media might condition us in ways other than through its overt or explicit content. McLuhan claims, for example, that when an advertisement has become so environmental that it is unperceived, that is when it is really doing its work, this is when it is most effective. In McLuhan we have a sense of the environment saturated with messages, codes, and mediatic effects that alter our behavior, change how we think, and modify how we relate to each other socially and politically. For McLuhan and others, media organize us.
Lurking within McLuhan’s environment is a notion of behavioral transformation. For this, among many other reasons, we can see a dimension of McLuhan that relates to environmental psychology and environmental design. Both of these are fields invested in the links between behavior and environment, and in how this link helps us think about the city, architecture, and social relations.
DR: In consideration of the environmental design movement, let’s talk about Environmental Communications. What was it about the Environmental Communications group that made them different from their contemporaries in the late 1960s? What was novel about them?
MW: In a very general way, Environmental Communications was like other groups of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. From Superstudio to Archizoom and Archigram to Ant Farm, this was an era of collective practices. EC was also an expression of this moment of collectivity. EC shared with other groups an intense interest in architecture’s media dimension. Many of these groups thought of media as implicitly architectural, not as a set of supplementary forms of representation or as something outside of architecture.
Yet, in their particular form of media practice, in the details of their media thought, and in several other ways, Environmental Communications differs from its contemporaries. Even among the other groups most committed to media experimentation, most followed with some kind of spatial architectural design proposition. EC is rarely distracted by that sort of ambition. Although they designed a few media installations, and some spatial alterations of their studio and its rooftop in Venice Beach, by far their most consistent work is a form of image production they call “environmental photography.” They sensed that if environment had a political, cultural, and disciplinary ascendancy it hadn’t been made adequately visible. Environmental Communications recognized a blind spot within architecture and environmental design that they sought to remedy with environmental photography.
They also had a novel and opportunistic relation to teaching and pedagogy. In a context of proliferating critical teaching methods and counter-institutions EC avoided entering architecture schools and universities directly. They didn’t teach, and they certainly didn’t propose new schools. Instead, they speculated that they could shift architectural learning by infiltrating schools with their images, via the slide library, which they saw as a potent site for manipulating architectural knowledge. Exposed to a new type of image—EC’s environmental photography—students would think of architecture, environment, the city, and social interaction differently.
To accomplish this infiltration Environmental Communications became a slide distribution company. This was both a conceptual stance and a legitimate business—their identity oscillated between these two poles. They assembled a massive database with hundreds of thousands of images that they sold to architecture schools, agencies, museums, and cultural institutions throughout the world. They theorized that through this system of distribution they would have the means to transform a global architectural consciousness. They believed that their images would change architectural education and would also modify behavior and perception.
DR: How does an image become architectural for EC?
MW: Much of the content of the slides were explicitly about architecture. EC slide series traced the emergence of inflatable architecture, dome architecture of communes, the work of Paolo Soleri, and other types of experimental practice. But Marcos and I were also interested in a slightly different reading of EC’s environmental architecture. We asked how one can see them hunting for an environmental detail in their photography.
DR: Could you expand upon the environmental detail?
MW: Even within EC’s project to articulate, visualize, document the environment in its multiple dimensions and definitions, there is something about the environment that nonetheless escapes detection, description, or delineation. Especially in some of their early slide series EC was trying to expose scenes of structural, social organization that were otherwise unrepresented or unrepresentable. In slide sets like Urban Crowd Behavior, what we are calling the environmental detail is not a tectonic relationship—rather it is a social, spatial juncture that EC was intent on capturing and depicting.
DR: To my understanding, it’s sort of describing a point in reality where the network that we’re a part of becomes visible, or obvious. It's a bit like the scene in ‘The Matrix’ when the cat appears twice in the hallway and the Matrix becomes obvious to Neo, revealing to the group that the system was in flux. That’s an environmental detail?
MW: (laughing) Yes, maybe.
DR: What does it mean to represent the “environment” in contemporary society?
MW: The broad definition of environment and the environmental spectrum of the 1970s that EC was trying to expose has been replaced by an environmental representation project most often focused on signs of climate change and impressions of the Anthropocene. From science to art and architecture practices, environmental transformation, vulnerability, and degradation are often portrayed through forms of visual evidence. One question that arises is according to what authority—institutional, discursive, technical—do such images appear and make claims.
Air Drifts, a project for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, examined the NASA climate modeling project at the Goddard Institute for space studies.9 We were looking at NASA’s animations of global air pollution that are as much a cinematic, representational, aesthetic tour de force as scientific tool. This kind of image is the product of a remote, integrated vision which has become the norm of global representations since new imaging technologies made the world visible to us in total form in the late 1960s.
One of the most compelling issues for the model and the animations is how data is collected, compiled, and organized from thousands of sources. As pollutants drift from city to city, from nation to nation, and from hemisphere to hemisphere, we are increasingly breathing international pollutants. Correspondingly, data belongs to disparate international scientific, sensing, collecting apparatuses. These animations are produced by negotiating distinct technical, scientific, and territorial realms. In these representations we see a contemporary image of the environment formed through similarly complex spatial, political, rhetorical figurations and negotiations.
1 William Wiles, “Review: Terror from the Air,” in Icon Magazine (United Kingdom: 2009)
2 Peter Sloterdijk, “Airquakes,” in Sphären III: Schäume (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2004), 89 -126, trans. Eduardo Mendieta (2009; repr. New York: University of New York Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook)
3 Alexander D’ Hooghe, “The Liberal Monument: Urban Design and the Late Modern Project,” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), 26
4 UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, "College History," accessed February 23, 2018, https://ced.berkeley.edu/about-ced/college-history/
5 Yale School of Architecture, "Environment Reconsidered," accessed February 23, 2018, https://architecture.yale.edu/school/events/environment-reconsidered.
6 D’ Hooghe, “The Liberal Monument: Urban Design and the Late Modern Project,” 26
7 Laura Bliss, “What the Instagram of the 1970s reveals about L.A.,” in CityLab (Washington DC: 2017) https://www.citylab.com/design/2017/02/what-the-instagram-of-the-1970s-reveals-about-la/517305
8 Mark Wasiuta, "The Making of Environmental Communications: Contact High," in a lecture for SVA MA Research, Writing & Criticism (Chicago, Ill: 2016) https://vimeo.com/163703039
9 Kadambari Baxi, Janette Kim, Meg McLagan, David Schiminovich, and Mark Wasiuta, “Air Drifts,” installation in Oslo Architecture Triennale (Oslo, Norway: 2016)