things aren't as they seem--even when they are

Geoff Manaugh and a post terrestrial, post-natural arch
image: Elizabeth Ellsworth

Geoff Manaugh (BLDG BLOG) presented work in New York City at the School of Visual Arts, as part of their Design Criticism program, on Tuesday, April 14. We met Geoff briefly while live blogging at the Nevada Museum of Art Art + Environment" Conference, and we've been following his blog--and now his new book--ever since. (It was a blast to watch the Postopolis! presentations by Geoff and others--including Matt Coolidge--webcast by the Storefront for Art and Architecture March 31-April 4, 2009.)

Geoff's presentation at SVA was titled "Designing the Post-Terrestrial," which he defined as designing technical stand-ins for the planet--earth simulations and replicants or replacements for Earth.

The "natural" arch in the image above is a case in point. Geoff told a story of how the federal government experimented with "transforming the geology of the American West into a permanently shellaced presence" via the "Arch Stabilization Project," using a product made by B.F. Goodrich in its test on several "natural arches."

This true story propelled Geoff into an evening of speculation (much of it also "true") about the built environment's relationship to the earth's surface. For example, what if the built environment is not something simply constructed on top of the "real" earth--but something that is continuously becoming the planet itself. In other words, what if the surface of the Earth was not really the surface of the Earth at all? What if what appears at first glance to be hills are actually buildings? What if a path that seems to go underground is actually going further into an architectural construct that precedes you? What if cities such as London developed glass bottomed buses, complete with ground penetrating radar capable of displaying to tourists the buried ruins beneath London's streets? What if--as Geoff actually experienced--you're walking along a surface street in Berlin only to realize suddenly that you're no longer on the earth's surface at all--you've crossed a seamless threshold onto an elevated walkway/bridge and you're high in the air but didn't notice because everything around you is designed to look as if it's still part of the earth's surface?

Geoff used the word "speculative" several times in his presentation. It left us wondering where speculation blurs into the purely "imaginative" (like the glass bottom bus). Regardless, speculation is an extremely useful and playful rhetorical device. Its active address keeps an audience's imagination in motion, offers a position from which one can project creative ideas, perceptions, and dreams in the name of shaking up the sometimes seemingly static world of theory and criticism.

This deliberate address of wondering "what if", even when standing before solid architectural structures, the landscape, or even the geologic depths of the earth, breaks new ground and dramatically departs from some academic approaches of more cannon-ized fields.

Acts of speculation keep the environment around us unfixed, unfinished, and always potentially more than what it seems on the surface.

Geoff's "things aren't what they seem--even when they are" perspective is actually a key conceptual frame getting wide use within the emerging field of Art/Design + Environments.

In Geoff's presentation, this perspective took the form of pointing out how sometimes we think we're walking on the surface of the earth, say, on a hill--only to find out that it isn't (just) a hill--it's a burial mound or an overgrown pyramid. In the Center for Land Use Interpretation's current installation for Parson's "Into the Open" exhibition (Post Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles), this perspective takes the form of pointing out that Los Angeles' trash removal infrastructure has also become monumental elements of the landscape.

In Chris Taylor's recent presentation about the Land Arts of the American West's field work with Incubo in the Atacama desert, it took the form of pointing out that what looks like the unimaginably huge empty space of the Atacama desert is actually filled with traces and remnants of human history, mineral extraction, political terror, aesthetic practice and powerful geo-forces.

In fact, in the Q&A session after Geoff's talk, an audience member hit it on the head when it comes to naming a gesture that is at the heart of the emerging field of Art/Design + Environments. This expanding field is very much about that shift in experience that comes when what one thought was (of) the earth is suddenly perceived/understood to be a building ... or infrastructure ... or an earthwork ... or a manufactured landscape ... or a human-altered weather event ... or not a shooting star at all but a top secret surveillance satellite falling back to earth. And, in the other direction--what looks at first glance to be a "painted desert" is suddenly perceived/understood to be the results of monumental and microscopic processes, flows, and dynamics taking place across unimaginably deep time.

The audience member asked: "what's at stake in this shift in experience?"

One thing that appears to be at stake is the current emergence and expansion of an entire interdisciplinary field of study and creative response. In an effort to make something of that shift, bloggers, scholars, artists, designers, art educators, land use interpreters and curators are chasing it, provoking it, inviting it, desiring it--and using it as the starting point for all sorts of trandisciplinary innovations, including speculative design.

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