Weaponized Urbanity - Leopold Lambert and Demilit

Article written for DAMn Magazine 45 about the 34th Archipelago conversation with Demilit ///

On May 2, 2014, I took a walk in downtown Oakland with the three members of Demilit, Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers, and Javier Arbona in order to record a sonic examination of the rampant militarization of public space in Western cities. Demilit was founded in 2010 to develop a common research on the politics of production of urban space. Walks are one of the means to address such a production as it allows an inventory of the objects that populate public space, as well as the examination of the rationale behind their presence.

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The Banlieue Archipelago (Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist 2014)

Maps created for the purpose of this article / Download them here in high resolution (7.1 MB)
(license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)

As I recently wrote in an article about Mathieu Kassowitz’s La Haine, I will probably write a lot about Paris’s banlieues in the coming year(s), as I will be soon returning to live on that side of the Atlantic ocean. I spent the last weeks elaborating documents to illustrate what these “banlieues” really are. This is as useful to people who are not so familiar with Paris’s geography as for people who live in the center of the city, since most of the latter rarely venture in the suburbs. The maps presented above, associated with the list of illustrations below, therefore attempt to present a geographic inventory of the “Cités” and “Zones Urbaines Sensibles” (Sensitive Urban Zones) that exist in the first four zones of Paris’s region’s public transportation system. The term banlieue is abusive in the sense that it means suburb, but it is understood internationally — and to some extents in France too — as low-income neighborhoods whose architecture is characterized by “barres” (long and massive housing buildings) and “tours” (towers) that host, among others, an important population of foreign and first/second generation French (often young) North and West Africans.

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Palestinian home destruction in East Jerusalem (January 2014) / Photograph by Tali Mayer/Activestills.org

As I have been writing in the past, I try to refrain myself from writing about the phenomenal aspects of the Palestinian struggle against the occupation to concentrate on the structural aspects. Sometimes, it is particularly difficult to exercise such refrain, like it is now when one sees the wave of anti-Arab racism that seems to currently materialize in Israel; however, we would condemn ourselves to perpetuate the effects if we just focus on them without examining their structural causes. The legal and political organization of the apartheid in Palestine needs to be continuously addressed.

Last week, online magazine +972 published an article, written by Michael Omer-Man, reporting about the “return of punitive home demolition” by the Israeli army in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This punitive measure had been stopped in 2005 following an army report affirming that this type of punishment was (unsurprisingly) failing to constitute a deterrent to what it defines as “terrorism.” The house concerned by the demolition order in this case belongs to a Palestinian man accused of having killed an Israeli off-duty police officer and wounded his wife and two children. According to Omer-Man, this man has been accused but not convicted, which reinforces the arbitrary injustice of this punitive measure. However, focusing too much on whether a person subjected to justice have been convicted or not would ultimately implicitly legitimize the punitive measure of home demolition, since it would shift the concern from what this punishment means to the individualized judicial cases of the people subjected to it. I would like to therefore question this punitive measure for what it actually means.

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Méditerranée sans frontières (Borderless Mediterranean Sea) by Sabine Réthoré (2013) /// found on Plateforme Art & Géo de Cartes Sensibles

The map presented above is an artwork by Sabine Réthoré. It consists in a map of the Mediterranean Sea and its coastal regions that was subjected to two simple operations: – A 90-degree tilt compared to the implicit imperial convention of placing the North on top. – A withdrawal of all national borders. That is how this map appears to us as simultaneously familiar and peculiar. Through it we recognize a space we know well — North Africans, Middle Easterns and South Europeans do at least — but our perception of it evolves thanks to the way it is represented. The “Borderless Mediterranean Sea” represents territories that seem optically closer to each other than when considered on a geopolitical map. The sea almost appears as a calm lake, where people on one bank would not feel fundamentally different from their neighbors on the opposite one. We can no longer see three continents struggling to exist but, rather, the sea as gathering lands around it. The names of the cities are worth reading out loud. Their sounds reveal more regional identities blending into each other, than strictly differentiated national belongings.

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Abortion clinic buffer zone1

Yesterday, June 26, 2014, the American Supreme Court ruled that the Massachusetts legislation that used to enforce a 35-feet (barely 11 meters) buffer zone in front of abortion clinics was anti-constitutional (thanks Mimi for the info). Religious and/or conservative groups in North America are organized to semantically and verbally pressure women on their way to get an abortion with various degrees of aggressiveness. The buffer zones around abortion clinics are thus though to materialize “safe spaces” where women can be protected from such pressure. We could try to look at the concept of buffer zone abstractly and ponder the question of what it means to suspend some rights (of expression in this context) on a given space; however, that would be forgetting two fundamental facts about this specific situation: the first one consists in the observation that similar zones are systematically applied around bodies (whether politicians, movie stars, or professional footballers) that are considered (reasonably or not) at risk from a given crowd. In this case, buffer zones are implemented by temporary fences and/or bodyguards that make these areas move with the concerned body. The second fact that fundamentally differentiates this last debatable example from the clinic’s buffer zones is that women who are on their way to get an abortion are systematically antagonized by the surrounding crowds that can tremendously increase their emotional vulnerability. The legal aspect of the violence of this antagonism might not be directly physical, this violence unfolds itself from a group of people in a position of power toward a precarious body: it is therefore a clear case where the law is required to envelop this body with protection.

We often encounter the concept of “safe space” within groups of people, where opinions and feeling are encouraged to be expressed and, thereby an atmosphere of protection against moral judgment needs to be implemented. Whether on specific sites on the Internet or in the semi-private spaces of associations, safe spaces are to be materialized through the social relation of the bodies involved. However, when a safe space needs to materialize within public space, safety cannot simply occur through the social link: it needs to be implemented as actual space.

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Still from La Haine by Mathieu Kassovitz (1995)

If, like me, you were a French teenager in the 1990s, you probably have a powerful remembrance of Mathieu Kasovitz’s La Haine (1995), in particular of the tracking shot that starts from the back of DJ Cut Killer mixing Assassin and NTM’s (the historical reference of Parisian hip-hop) “Nique la Police” (Fuck the Police) and Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” (I do not regret anything) and slowly flies over the Cité des Muguets in the suburbs of Paris (see the successive stills assembled below). This film remains a narrative reference to the situation of the Parisian banlieues (suburbs) where the most precarious populations, which include an important part of the North and West African first and second generations of immigration from French former colonies. It is in my plans to expose how technocratic urbanism has lead to the systematic spatial exclusion that we know now in a more detailed manner in the near future (in the meantime, one can read the past articles about “Fortress Paris”); however, for the purposes of this article, I would like to concentrate on La Haine.

The film’s plot is set to happen on the next day of massive demonstrations following the arrest of a young man of the cité — cités refer to this particular urban typology of separated groups of buildings that were thought to be used in a quasi-autarkic way — by the police, which brutalized him to a state of coma. The first minutes of the film (see below) show documentary footage of similar historical protests following Makome M’Bowole’s murder by the police after his arrest in 1993, and Malik Oussekine’s murder by the riot police during a demonstration in 1986. In La Haine, the police is the clear antagonist. This is not always true in the persons of the police officers themselves: persons deal with the power they exercise in various ways (from the comprehensive version to the most violent one); however, the police beyond the persons, that is the institution that the police embodies, is to be understood as part of the systematic exclusion that the banlieues incarnate (hence the film’s soundtrack!).

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Excerpt of the forthcoming book Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention by Tings Chak (2014)

The last podcast published on Archipelago is a conversation with Tings Chak, Toronto-based migrant justice organizer (as part of the organization No One Is Illegal for example), as well as a multidisciplinary designer. Tings is about to publish a graphic-essay book entitled Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (The Architecture Observer, 2014) that articulates the two aspects of her work as an organizer and as a designer. In her Funambulist Paper entitled “Racialized Geographies and the Fear of Ships,” she had already exposed how the historical and contemporary treatment of migration depends on considerations for the very bodies of the migrants themselves. Most of them are either refused, expelled, marginalized or incarcerated. In Undocumented, she engages the architectural typology of the Canadian migrant detention centers at many levels.

One of these levels consits in the legal aspect of the detentions themselves. The latter are not effectuated to punish bodies, but for administrative reasons, holding bodies to a location for them to wait — sometimes for years — to hear about whether or not they will be expelled from the national territory or not. The detention is thus not only painful but each body who is detained is not aware for how much time. Another level is the administrativization of the bodies:

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anti-homeless spikes

There has been a recent outcry on the Internet after the wide spreading of a series of photographs showing metallic/concrete spikes on stone thresholds, planters and other surfaces that could potentially be used by homeless people in order to sleep. Judging the motivations of people who have been part of this outcry is not my place here; however one cannot help but to notice the hyper-punctuality of this kind of conversations on the Internet that, too often, restraint themselves to 140 characters of indignation with no subsequent political traction. The very fact that many people seem to have just discovered this anti-homeless material device for the first time in these coming weeks is telling of the triviality with which they consider the public space of the cities in which they live. The problem here is not as much the evanescence of this outcry — after all, it could have sensitized a few people — but, rather, the way it embodies one more proof that a wrongly asked question can implicitly legitimize that against which the question had been asked. In other words, by targeting the spikes, rather than homelessness itself, this outcry is considering the fact that our societies count a multitude of homeless people as granted.

When children, we are being told that there is no such thing as a “stupid question,” and that there are only “stupid answers.” This would be too easy if it was true. I would actually argue that only questions can be stupid and answers are only as pertinent as the questions that triggered them. I wrote a few weeks ago about the deceptive question “what should we do with the European immigration problem” that the xenophobic movements have succeeded to have moderate parties systematically answered forgetting that there may not be any “immigration problem” to begin with. I also recently discussed with Derek Gregory about the deceptive questions that legitimatize American drone attacks: “can the US Army assassinate an American citizen without due trial?” or “can the Obama administration release the procedure used in the context of this kind of attacks?” All these questions are asked in the belief that they will help prevent what they actually implicitly legitimize (xenophobia, drone assassinations, homelessness, etc.) by bringing the point of attention to an effect of the problem, and not the cause of it.

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French soldier in 1916 / Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The following article is based on the reading of Peter Sloterdijk‘s Terror from the Air (Semiotext(e), 2007), as well as the inspiration provided on this blog by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos and Philippe Theophanidis in their respective Funambulist Papers, “The Funambulist Atmosphere (July 2012) and “Caught in the Cloud: The Biopolitics of Tear Gas Warfare” (August 2013), which both refer to Sloterdijk’s book. The latter introduces a short history of chemical terrorism and its implications for our perception of the atmosphere in which our bodies are embedded and interact. Although Sloterdijk insists on the 20th-century mutation of warfare from a symmetrical scheme to an asymmetrical one, which therefore develop terrorist activity, he however attributes the birth of “atmoterror” to the gas attacks created by the German army during the First World War, i.e. a war between two symmetrical armies. “Terror operates on a level beyond the naïve exchange of armed blows between regular troops; it involves replacing these classical forms of battle with assaults on the environmental conditions of the enemy’s life,” he writes. This definition can resonate with the context of the First World War, since both armies had reached such a degree of immobility in their tranches, that something like “life conditions” and the daily rhythm they imply, can apply to it.

The lightning-fast development of military breathing apparatuses (in the vernacular: linen gas masks) shows that troops were having to adapt to a situation in which human respiration was assuming a direct role in the events of war. (Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, 19.

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Sound Tank

Panzer by Nik Nowak (2011)

This article is relatively premature as I will soon read Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (MIT Press, 2012), as well as Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011); yet I felt the need to already construct an inventory of weaponized designs that mobilize a dimension of affect we tend to forget when dealing with topics such as the militarization of urban space: sound. Every time I write about sound used as weapon, I go back to the biblical example of the battle of Jericho (see past article) that describes the fortress walls of the city being destroyed by the trumpets of the Hebrews. Whether this story actually occurred this way or not, we should keep from it the idea that sound is not any less material than a wall or a body. The experience we have of sound is commonly accepted as immaterial, as if sound was a superimposed reality onto the realm of physicality. Sound constitutes however material waves that we usually perceive through the vibration of our ear drum, but the experience of low frequencies — the bass system at a James Blake concert for example — can also be done through the entire body as the vibrations are more intense.

Such a capacity to affect bodies could not possibly not be weaponized in various forms. An example already quoted on the Funambulist was the US Army siege on the Vatican Embassy where ex-dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega took refuge when the Americans invaded the country in 1989 (see past article about sieges on embassies). The tactic used by the US Army consisted in surrounding the embassy with a powerful sound system, and play loud music through it until Noriega surrendered from exhaustion. Such example constitutes a sonic torture at large scale that was re-applied later at a more individualized scale in the various detention centers of the so-called “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay: detainees would be kept in a room while continuously suffering from extremely loud music.

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Hunger Steve McQueen - The Funambulist (1)

Still from Hunger (2008) by Steve McQueen

In 1976, the British government withdrew the status of political prisoner to every detainees who had been imprisoned for having taken part in the Northern Irish conflict. On March 5, 1981, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech in Belfast stating the following:

There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.

The refusal to attribute this status to prisoners forces them to wear a uniform, do some prison work, and prevent them from association with other prisoners but more importantly, it denies the very essence of each convict’s action accomplished within the frame of an ethical collective narrative, and not for individual opportunist purpose. The point of the following article is to show how the Republican prisoners’ bodies constituted the unique site of both resistance in torture in the actions that were undertook following this governmental decision. In order to do so, I will use screenshots that I made from Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger (2008), about which it is not question here to make a critique. Some of the following images, although recounting historical events are fictitious but are quite graphic for some of them; I therefore recommend cautiousness to sensitive persons. I add to this film, two more references: the well-documented website Prisons Memory Archive, as well as the three radio broadcasts that “La Fabrique de l’Histoire” released last week about Northern Ireland (France Culture).

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tomasvanhoutryve

Baseball field in Maryland as filmed by a drone /// Project by Tomas Van Houtryve

The latest conversation I released for Archipelago was recorded on May 9, 2014 with Derek Gregory at the Peter Wall Institute (University of British Columbia) where he is one of the two distinguished professors. I take the opportunity here to synthesize the main points we discussed, as well as to attempt to develop my own reflection under their influence. The topic of this conversation, as well as Derek’s extended and precise expertise, is the so-called “war on terror” that the United States and their military allies have been executing since the end of 2001. This war, more than any others, necessities the mobilization of all disciplines (geography, anthropology, architecture, medicine, law, etc.), and their weaponization to serve the functions of war. Approaching them in such a way might already be misleading as these disciplines might very well be inherently weaponized as Derek recalls in the conversation: “geography is mostly used to make war” (Yves Lacoste).

Derek distinguishes three spaces that need to be produced in order for this war to operate. “The space of the target” constitutes in the geographical and technological allowance to physically target bodies or objects. “The space of exception” manufactures spatial and temporal situations where bodies are stripped from their legal rights. “The space of the enemy” consists in the intervention in the imaginaries of the populations that fund this war, i.e. the production of a status of definite and absolute otherness to the bodies attacked. Without these three spaces, the war cannot function, as we sporadically observe when one of them tends to momentarily fail.  For the purposes of this article, we will look at each of them individually.

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09- Science Fiction (full cover)

The ninth volume of The Funambulist Pamphlets that gathers and edits past articles of the blog about Science Fiction is now officially published by Punctum Books in collaboration with the Center for Transformative Media at Parsons The New School. You can either download the book as a PDF for free or order it online for the price of $7.00 or €6.00. Next volume to be published will be dedicated to literature. Click here to see the other volumes of The Funambulist Pamphlets.

I have to say that science fiction is a domain that I have not address for a relatively long time and when looking at the index, I cannot help but notice the strong influence of a specific type of science fiction written by Western male authors. I will try to diversify this vision in my future writings and, in the meantime, offer the Archipelago conversation I had with Sophia Azeb about the power of imagination — that includes a science fiction literature — for the Palestinian struggle. (see also this list on tor.com)

Thank you to Eileen Joy, Anna Kłosowska, Ed Keller, Martin Byrne, Marc-Antoine Mathieu, Raja Shehadeh, Iker Gil, and Koldo Lus Arana.

Official page of The Funambulist Pamphlets Volume 09: SCIENCE FICTION on Punctum Books’ website.

Index of the Book

Introduction: When James Graham Ballard meets Philip K. Dick, what do they talk about?
01/ Science Fiction as an Inventor of Dilemmas: From Utopia to Apocalypse by Peter Paik
02/ 2037 by Raja Shehadeh
03/ Collision, Sexuality and Resistance
04/ Ballardian Landscapes: Desacralizing Thaumaturgic Modernity
05/ The Fouled Beauty of James Graham Ballard
06/ Letter to James Graham Ballard / April 14th 2009
07/ Psychotropic Houses by James Graham Ballard
08/ The Brutal Art of Enki Bilal
09/ The work of Philip K. Dick: Between Paranoia and Schizophrenia
10/ The Funambulist Papers 03 / Transcendent Delusion or; The Dangerous Free Spaces of Phillip K. Dick by Martin Byrne
11/ Untitled Narrative #002 (Feral Garage) by Martin Byrne
12/ Labyrinths and Other Metaphysical Constructions: Interview with Marc-Antoine Mathieu
13/ Overpopulated Cities / The Concentration City, Billennium, L’Origine & Soylent Green
14/ Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
15/ Never Let Me Go by Mark Romanek
16/ The Declamatory Porcelain Architectures of Serge Brussolo

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Heydrich letter concerning the Final Solution

Letter of the Nazi administration concerning the “Endlösung der Judenfrage” (final solution to the Jewish question), 1942

It probably seems strange to be fighting against the notion of “solution.” After all, isn’t it what we must seek for each problem that infuriates us? “To each problem, a solution” is an idiom with which we have been continuously familiarized, and in the various architectural juries I attend, we hear either from the students or from their instructors a will to find the solution to the problem they tackled. I would like to argue that, beyond the simple terminology, the very principle of solution intervene in one of the most dangerous ways of thinking.

A few readers would have immediately associated the words “solution” and “final” in the title to the terminology used by the Nazi administration to talk about the Holocaust. “The final solution to the Jewish question” is not a horrifying euphemism, it is exactly what it claims to be: a solution, by definition final, to a problem defined as such by the Nazis. Here lies the first element of deconstruction of the notion of solution: the definition of a problem cannot be enunciated outside of an ideological context that produces the terms in which it is thought. Currently, in Europe, even socio-democrats talk about an “immigration problem,” which proves that the populist nationalist rights have won the “war of problems,” only differentiating themselves from the left-center parties for the radicality of their “solutions.” The xenophobic European ideology has spread so much that such an “immigration problem” is considered as granted and the terms in which it is posed almost never include the risks for migrants’ lives that result from the militarized defense of the European territory, nor does it recognize why Europe, through colonialism, carries a tremendous responsibility in the poor conditions of life that are fled by migrants.

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