• Steven Heller

Citizenship, Now More Than Ever

Inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ film “Power of Ten,” a new book by Inventory Press, Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from Body to Cosmos edited by Nick Axel, Nikolaus Hirsch, Ann Lui and Mimi Zeiger, design by IN-FO.CO provides a view of belonging across seven stages starting with the individual (Citizen), then the collective (Civic, Region, Nation), and expanding to include all phases of contemporary society, real and projected (Globe, Network, Cosmos). Additional essays—by Ingrid Burrington, Ana María León, and Nicholas de Monchaux, among others — offer thoughtful responses to these themes. From social to speculative, from technical to theoretical, the participating teams lead intellectual and architectural practices that not only situate the US as a leading center of critical research at the heart of the debate on citizenship, social conscience, and a just society, but also as a place at the intersection of political action, public policy, and changing notions of nationality. It is an important book, especially now as democracy hangs in the balance between ego and tyranny. I asked Inventory publisher Adam Michaels and managing director Shannon Harvey to talk about the book’s relevance and our need for it.

Dimensions of Citizenship

You’ve done many art and design books with Inventory Press, mostly on significant themes. The new one, “Dimensions of Citizenship” is timely and significant. What was your impetus for doing this? And please explain the subtitle “Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos?

Adam Michaels: At Inventory Press we’ve tried to develop a list where art, design, and politics intersect, often covering subject matter that falls in between, or across, disciplinary boundaries. Titles arrive at IP in a variety of ways — sometimes internally generated, other times externally proposed. In this case, Dimensions of Citizenship first came to us as part of a design commission for IN-FO.CO (the design & editorial studio that Shannon Harvey and I run in tandem with Inventory Press).

IN-FO.CO was commissioned by the curators (Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, and Mimi Zeiger) of the 2018 US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale to develop a comprehensive design system, extending to exhibition design, book design, web design, printed materials, and so on.

When we began discussing the book, the curators proposed the idea of picking up the small, experimental paperback format and approach of the Inventory Books paperback series that I edited and designed some years ago for Princeton Architectural Press (this was prior to starting Inventory Press as an independent publishing company). Shannon and I were thrilled to work from this conceptual starting point, and it seemed perfect to develop the title as an IP release.

Dimensions of Citizenship inventory press
Dimensions of Citizenship

Since Jane Jacobs (maybe even since John Ruskin) architecture, urban planning and place and space have been concerns of democracy and dictatorship. How does the built environment play an inexorable role in freedom (or not)?

AM: The built environment plays an inestimable role in terms of perceptions and concrete realities of freedom, agency, political efficacy, and so on; there are limitless lenses to view this through, from an individual’s perception of place to the large-scale economic and political forces shaping a complex urban situation. The Wire series comes to mind for its well worked-out approach to showing a range of individual lives and societal forces as they play out within a particular built environment.

Dimensions of Citizenship
Dimensions of Citizenship
Dimensions of Citizenship

As I was reading through the essays, I starting thinking about where we choose to live. What does the architecture of a building, the construction of a space, the feeling of a neighborhood say about us as citizens?

Shannon Harvey: In their introductory essay, the exhibition curators talk about how complex the relations are between ourselves and the actual spaces we inhabit — all the more complex now that many of those spaces are virtual. Our lived experience of citizenship is highly distributed; a person may feel a sense of belonging in a physical neighborhood, while feeling a greater sense of belonging in something like the 46-million-person online community of World of Warcraft. The emotional and formal boundaries of citizenry are dramatically in flux, with a vastly different range of possibilities available to individuals and communities based on their access to resources.

One of the essays that struck my heart was MANY the platform design to facilitate migration “through exchanges of needs.” Can you talk a bit about this concept?

SH: Keller Easterling’s project for the pavilion was a digital platform that acts as a kind of “matchmaking” service for skilled workers and organizations across the globe.

Imagine if the concept of tourism was reconceived as a global skills exchange, and that “sidelined talents” of migrating populations were matched with specific endeavors and opportunities. The idea is that this more practical impulse for travel and migration might facilitate a more productive response to political, economic, or environmental crises.

Dimensions of Citizenship
Dimensions of Citizenship
Dimensions of Citizenship

She proposes that cosmopolitan mobility might also organize itself around greater intervals of time or seasons of a life, and posits that this exchange of practical labor be accredited as the means to global leadership credentials. I love the idea of global citizens collecting credentials and passport stamps that celebrate meaningful engagement with a place, rather than an indication of having passed through a politically defined border.

You could not have a book like this with addressing the meaning of Trump’s immigration fiasco. In MEXUS the author talks about a “self inflicted wound.” What is the scope of that wound?

SH:   Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, designers of the MEXUS project, investigate the broad reaching repercussions of even the idea of a wall between the US and Mexico: the uncertainty and aggression embedded in the propagation of the concept itself is cause for environmental and economic insecurity.

Their project is one of revealing the vital regional ecosystems the the wall undermines — ecosystems that

are essential to the coexistence and survival of the communities on either side. They ask us to think of environmental systems like the watershed between Tijuana and San Diego as organizing frameworks for transnational bio-regions, a call for a globally minded ethics over nationalistic politicking.

Dimensions of Citizenship
Dimensions of Citizenship
Dimensions of Citizenship
Dimensions of Citizenship

You also address ecology, notably that they are not fixed political regions but interdependent ecosystems. Trump has pulled us out of the Paris Accords, does this have an irreversible impact on being what the title of one essay says is an “Ecological Citizen”?

AM: The current US regime has consistently demonstrated its utter disregard for ecological stewardship, with the withdrawal from the Paris Accord being a particularly visible maneuver. In terms of irreversibility, recent reports show that time is limited, with drastic overhauls of industry being particularly crucial; forward-thinking political leadership is necessary on all societal scales, with smaller-scale activity coalescing towards large-scale political and policy movement.

SH: This question of how to be an ecological citizen comes up repeatedly in the book, recognizing that issues of citizenry extend to non-human actors. Ecological crises don’t just apply to humans, but to all scales of life (as the curators say: “from microbe to mammal”). In this age of the so-called Anthropocene, linking human activity and its effects to all scales of life is essential to addressing the problems of continued life on this planet holistically — and we think can offer a productive and scalable way of approaching ecological issues moving forward.

As someone who has edited a number of thematic anthologies, I have a general yet personal question. What is the purpose of this book? What do you hope your reader will take-away? Is there concrete evidence that books of this conceptual weight make a difference?

AM: It’s very natural to wonder whether this kind of work leads to any sort of tangible results — the world of broadly distributed books offers so few opportunities for direct, substantive feedback from readers. (As an aside, it’s been a tremendous pleasure to present our titles at the IP table at numerous book fairs, as this is where we receive the most direct, engaged feedback from the readers of our books).

In general, I hope that a book such as this provides a reader with numerous entry points and prompts for critical thinking and activity, stemming from a particular set of significant subject matter — though in addition, we also try to put forth an overall gestalt of expanded possibilities for what a book (or anything else) can be, in terms of a thoroughly developed, particular means of expression. In sum, while it’s difficult to say whether any of this makes a concrete difference, I’m convinced that it’s worth it to try.

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