Tag Archives: Urban Design Activism

An Ethology of Urban Fabric(s)

by Jonas Fritsch and Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, DAC/CAVI/PIT, Aarhus University

‘… no one knows ahead of time the affects one is capable of; it is a long affair of experimentation…’ (Deleuze 1988/1970, p. 125)

With this piece, we wish to open up a patchwork of relational thinking of the ethology of urban fabric(s) from a post-digital perspective. We understand the notion of urban fabrics non-metaphorically to denote actual, textural manifestations to be studied in their processual complexity. Rather than attempting to define the notion of urban fabric(s), we want to use it creatively to open up lines of thought and experimentation as part of the 7-year research project IMMEDIATIONS: Art, Media and Event. We take the term ethology from Deleuze’s book on Spinoza, where he states the following:

“Ethology is first of all the study of the relations of speed and slowness, of the capacities for affecting and being affected that characterize each thing. For each thing these relations and capacities have an amplitude, thresholds (maximum and minimum), and variations or transformations that are peculiar to them. And they select, in the world or in Nature, that which corresponds to the thing; that is, they select what affects or is affected by the thing, that moves it or is moved by it. For example, given an animal, what is this animal unaffected by in the infinite world? What does it react to positively or negatively? What are its nutriments and its poisons? What does it “take” in its world? Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly. So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior. The speed or slowness of metabolisms, perceptions, actions, and reactions link together to constitute a particular individual in the world” (Deleuze [1970] (1988), 125).

Looking into the ethological workings of urban fabrics directs our attention towards a range of possible areas of investigation and propositions, among other things:

  • What is the velocity of urban fabric(s)?
  • What characterizes urban fabric in terms of amplitude, thresholds, variations, transformations; what affects or is affected by urban fabric(s)?
  • What relations and capacities emerge through the processes concerned with the creation and distribution of urban fabrics?
  • What interfaces between (what kinds of) exterior and interior are produced by urban fabric(s) (animal-organic, skin-textile/skin-city, language-fabric, habit-character)? How does this relate to the intensity in the formation/transformation of habits, perceptions, actions, movements in urban environments?

In the following we will sketch out some lines of thought that we wish to develop through the course of the IMMEDIATIONS project, ending in a proposition for possible forms of experimentation and expositions.

VELOCITY of urban fabric(s)

When asking questions about the velocity of urban fabrics, our attention is circling around two main themes at the moment; the speed vs. slowness of fashion and the temporary nature of the built environment.

In fashion, novelty and modernity have been aligned with the shifts and modi of fashion (la mode) since 1850, and considering that the development of capitalism had its take-off from the industrial production of linen by the meter (the Jacquard loom/ weave), novelty in fashion has been a very visible force for the understanding of ‘time as progress’. The aesthetic novelty in the form of a folding, a lace trimming, a color shade or a cut in its always renewed relational connectivity with bodies and urban surroundings has been an aesthetic concern for designers and users of fashion alike. This relational/spatial production of attractions that has very much been assumed by the film industry and contemporary interface screens, forms the basis of contemporary uses of former fabrics of fashion. The recycling of former fashion clothings is very much a digging into (imaginary) spaces belonging to older or disappeared spaces and places in the city, forming our experience of the urban fabric. The culture of recycling, reusing and the compilation of fabrics belonging to different clothings and body-sizes have developed into a new model of business ecology in which the relational capacities of body and fabric are re-thought. This ‘slowing down of fashion’ in order to focus on affect and appreciate the relational production of spaces and places in connectivity with the ethology of the fabric-becoming-body is further elaborated in the section Relational Capacities.

Focusing on the temporary nature of the built environment, we want to move from a top-down understanding of/bird’s eye perspective on urban fabric(s) (from e.g. city planning as seen here: http://www.bricoleurbanism.org/ideas/urban-fabric-form-comparison/ ) to the actual configurations and compositions of texture and their relation to experience in and of the urban sphere. Here, we are interested in the use of different forms of duration relating to the materiality of the cityscape, as well as in the changes in velocity and perception with the advent of digital activations of the city, e.g. through mobile phones, media facades, and so forth. The slowness of the built environment can be disrupted through the use of digital layers, changing our perception of the built city, as seen in the art practices of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, United Visual Artists and the Graffiti Research Lab (http://www.graffitiresearchlab.com/blog/). In addition, a range of practices have arisen around the creation of temporary urban spaces, among others the Danish-based Institut for (X) who are working actively with emerging spaces in the city as part of their artistic and investigative practice, as seen in the project ‘Platform 4 (http://www.detours.biz/projects/platform-4/). For a large part, Institut for (X) use wood to built structures that can easily be dismantled again. Looking at interventionist strategies such as Urban/Guerilla Gardening and Urban/Guerilla Knitting (http://knitthecity.com), it might be argued, from an ethological point of view, that we are witnessing a simultaneous ‘speeding up’ of the built infrastructure, as well as a ‘slowing down’ through the use of a range of analog (post-digital? nostalgic?) materials, textures and fabric.

CHARACTERIZATIONS of urban fabric(s)

When trying to understand what affects or is affected by urban fabric(s) through looking into what characterizes urban fabric(s) in terms of amplitude, thresholds, variations, transformations, we want to sketch out two (admittedly rather general) points of entry; how does the urban fabric affect our ability to act and how does it act upon us and how is this manifested in the fabric? The first point of entry we wish to unfold theoretically building on the work of Jacques Rancière on the ‘distribution of the sensible’ in relation to his politics of aesthetics:

‘I call the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts. This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in the community of citizens.’ (Rancière 2004, p. 12)

We believe an ethological understanding of urban fabric(s) needs to take into account the way in which it distributes the sensible, the aesthetics of the urban fabric, which ‘‘…determines a mode of articulation between forms of action, production, perception and thought.’ (Rancière 2004, p. 82 (Glossary). The urban fabric(s) conditions our (common) experience of the city, the choices we make there, the actions we undertake, the things we do and do not do, on what Brian Massumi terms a microperceptual level – with, what might be termed, macropolitical consequences. Here, microperception is bodily, but qualitatively different from perception in that it is felt without registering consciously:

‘The world in which we live is literally made of these reinaugural microperceptions, cutting in, cueing emergence, priming capacities. Every body is at every instant in thrall to any number of them. A body is a complex of inbracings playing out complexly and in serial fashion. The tendencies and capacities activated do not necessarily bear fruit. Some will be summoned to the verge of unfolding, only to be left behind, unactualized. But even these will have left their trace.’ (Massumi 2009, p. 5)

Massumi relates the notion of microperception with that of micropolitics, resonating with Rancières notions of the aesthetics of politics and politics of aesthetics:

‘If there is such thing as an ‘aesthetics of politics’, it lies in a re-configuration of the distribution of the common through political processes of subjectivation. Correspondingly, if there is a politics of aesthetics, it lies in the practices and modes of visibility of art that re-configure the fabrics of sensory experience.’ (Rancière 2010, p. 140)

To Rancière, these practices of re-configuration can emerge through artistic practices that bring about dissensus, a  ‘..dissensual re-configuration of the distribution of the common through political processes of subjectivation.’ (Rancière 2010, p. 140). Thomas Markussen has explored how this might come about in a design practice, focusing on the micro-political and aesthetic dimensions of urban design activism understood as proper designerly ways of intervening into people’s lives (Markussen 2012). According to Markussen, who also builds on the work of Rancière, urban design activism ‘uses the sensuous material of the city while exploring the particular elements of urban experience’ (Markussen 2012, p. 41). He mentions a range of examples, e.g. Institute for Applied Autonomy’s iSee-project allowing people to chose the least surveilled routes through urban spaces (http://www.appliedautonomy.com/isee.html) and Santiago Cirugedas Recatas Urbanas (Urban Prescriptions), exploring the relation between the regulations of the city municipality and the need for extra room through the construction of scaffolds which are then turned into places of dwelling (http://www.recetasurbanas.net/index1.php?idioma=ENG&REF=1&ID=0003). These projects can be said to experiment with the way in which urban fabric(s) can be renegotiated through artistic and designerly experimentation, highlighting existing distributions of the sensible on a microperceptual- and political level, offering ways for people to engage with the urban fabric(s) to act upon this.

The entry into the second point – how urban fabric acts upon us and how it is manifested in the fabric – can be opened by Hito Steyerl’s video installation for Documenta XII, 2007, Lovely Andrea: http://www.ubu.com/film/steyerl_andrea.html. In Steyerl’s search for an image of japanese bondage, that was taken of her in 1987, she documents on the one hand that power relations within a contemporary visual dominance does create an endless appetite for images of ‘truth’ and ‘freedom’, and on the other hand that images can create facts and can produce realities to unravel the interconnectedness of bondage and webs. Her examples that she weaves together are bondage girls, Spiderman and prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Like the cobweb serves the purpose of attracting and capture, weaved fabrics, web-designs and the Internet all leave marks in the skin and connects us to buildings, archives and urban distribution and traffic (cf. traficking). In Steyerl’s case the unraveling of the web actually generates an idea about the scale and amplitude of trades and transactions of bonding. The thresholds that determines Steyerl’s access to her own image are spelled out as ‘the cameraman’ and ‘the studio’. The discursive ownerships belonging to the 1980s are still controlling the entry points to the material archives, but the search machines of the internet archives have for a long time attracted our appetite for ‘new material’. If this material is thought of as all the archives and databases of the Internet the thresholds are easily identified as Google, Facebook etc – and the code is the password, that includes and excludes. Deleuze wrote in 1990 on the (then future) web control that the code – “one’s (dividual) electronic card” – would grant or deny access to “one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighborhood” creating a universal modulation (“Postscript on the Societies of Control” https://files.nyu.edu/dnm232/public/deleuze_postcript.pdf). Deleuze compared his modulation, i.e. the processes by which we connect or are denied access to the weave of the Internet archive, to the coils of the serpent – whereas societies based upon disciplinary systems of control described by Foucault are compared to the ethology of mole and molehill. This line of thought makes it possible to think of the serpent in its relation to its coil as a rubbing between two surfaces – the skin and the ground. The friction created is becoming the new fiction, the affective field of creation. The fabric (of the ground) is just as much affected by the skin as the other way around. The skin leaves traces and form patterns in the fabric (of urbanity, the Internet, the brain) just as the fabric determines the possible coiled movements (of the snake).

RELATIONAL CAPACITIES of urban fabric(s) (distribution and creation)

Talking about the relational capacities of urban fabric, we want to investigate the creation and distribution of fabric and textiles on a local and global scale. On a global scale, it is possible to look into and critically account for the complex networks of production of fabric – clothes, books, archival material on the Internet, economic transactions – to suggest a starting point. We have not yet developed a vocabulary to address this but are looking for ways to move into these explorations. Locally, we are interested in the above-mentioned business models of recycled clothes appearing around flea markets and re-sewing businesses (http://www.melangedeluxe.dk/conditions/ ). Also, we see examples of shops appearing where you have to donate a piece of clothes to be able to buy a new one. In addition, bringing it back to a global scale, we want to pursue what happens to the recycled clothes and how this can be inserted into other-than-urban loops and what that might entail. Whereas this might seem rather ‘down to earth’ or even simplistic following from the previous section, we do see a potential for these investigations to enter more complex conceptual infrastructures through the analysis and experiments with different kinds of creation, distribution and circulation of urban fabric(s). In addition, we wish to explore how this might relate to textures and not only textiles.

Although this might be argued to be the least developed part of the ethology of urban fabric(s), we believe there is great potential in tying these explorations together with the previous sections to allow for a diagrammatic conceptualization of the relational complexity at stake here.

EXTERIOR/ INTERIOR of urban fabric(s) (interfaces)

The new kinds of shared interfaces of urbanity and fabrics can be outlined in reference to Jacque Rancière’s chapter on “The Surface of Design” in The future of the Image [2003] (2007). His take on design is “[...] the way in which, by assembling words or forms, people define not merely various forms of art, but certain configurations of what can be seen and what can be thought, certain forms of inhabiting the material world” (p. 91). His example is the development of streamlined, pure poetic forms by French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the development of functionalist design by German architect, engineer and designer, Peter Behrens. In the same historical momentum they “define a new texture of communal existence” (p. 97). They both interface with the world around them. Mallarmé learns from the dancer Loïe Fuller and her transformation of dance to “a fountain, a flame or a butterfly” becoming “a luminous statue, combining dance, sculpture and the art of light into a hypermediatic type of work” and thus she is “an exemplary graphic emblem of the age of electricity”, but she also had Behrens design of an advertisements for a German mouthwash product, Odol, projected onto her skirt. This movement-body-fabric constellation of Fuller’s shows an interface between art and signs. They become equal on a shared and “common physical surface” [of] signs, forms and acts” (p. 99).

One way of exemplifying what generates the surface for contemporary interfaces between art and technology is definitely the software as a weave of algorithmic codings. In the case of interactive architecture or media facades, where buildings become interfaces, and the relation between the interior/exterior is broken up, we can argue, with Rancière, that these algorithmic codings are in fact re-distributing the sensible through an (inter)activation of the urban fabric(s):

‘This is not a simple matter of an ‘institution’, but of the framework of the distributions of space and the weaving of fabrics of perception. Within any given framework, artists are those whose strategies aim to change the frames, speed and scales according to which we perceive the visible, and combine it with a specific invisible element and a specific meaning.’ (Rancière 2010, p. 141)

In continuation of this line of thought we might ask: What interfaces between (what kinds of) exterior and interior are produced by urban fabric(s) (animal-organic, skin-textile/skin-city, language-fabric, habit-character)? The animal-organic-artificial concerns the raw material of the production of fabric (e.g. wool-bamboo-polyester) and its relation to the distribution of the sensible through affective fields. The skin-textile activates a thinking of the skin and textile as surfaces that co-constitute complex interweavings of texture and fabric, as developed in the previous section through the story of the serpent. The language-fabric relation is etymological and can be used to develop the relation between text and textile, where text has etymological roots to both ‘weaving’ and ‘tissue’. An interesting example here concerns the language ‘Linear B’ in which the content of the communication relates directly to the production of textiles (e.g. how many sheep are needed to produce a garment). In this project, it is our ambition to generate material fabrics that invite to interfaces between animal-organic, skin-textile/skin-city, language-fabric, habit-character.


Conurrently with these conceptual investigations of a possible ethology of urban fabric(s), we are also proposing to enter into a range of experimental practices on the verge of art and design. At the moment, we are contemplating how to go about this kind of experimentation, which we want to aim at different distributions of the sensible – dissensus – through new interweavings and interfaces that rupture relations and invent new relationships. Re-thinking the notion of ‘fiction’, Rancière argues that it is possible to change ‘…existing modes of sensory presentations and forms of enunciation; of varying frames, scales and rhythms; and of building new relationships between reality and appearance, the individual and the collective’ (Rancière 2010, p. 141). In the IMMEDIATIONS project, we want to situate this kind of interventionist or practice-based experimentation within an academic context as a kind of research-creation.

References (suggestive)

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. [1980] 1987: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia II, trans. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles [1990] 2002: “Postscript on Societies of Control”. CTRL SPACE: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne and Peter Weibel (eds.): CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England.

Deleuze, Gilles [1968] 1990: Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England.

Greenfield, Adam and Shepard, Mark (2007): Urban Computing and its Discontent. New York: The Architectural League of New York.

Markussen, Thomas 2013: The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism: Enacting Design Between Art and Politics. DesignIssues 29:1.

Massumi, Brian 2009: “Of Microperception and Micropolitics. An interview with Brian Massumi, august 2008. INFLeXions no. 3. Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics. October 2009.

Massumi, Brian 2002: Parables for the Virtual. Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press: Durham and London.

Rancière, Jacques [2000] 2008: The Politics of Aesthetics. Continuum: London and New York.

Rancière, Jaques [2003] 2007: The Future of the Image.Verso, London, New York

Rancière, Jacques [2004] 2010: Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Continuum Books: London and New York.