David Gissen delivered one of my favourite talks at Postopolis! LA, for sure. Gissen is a historian - yet lest that conjure up a certain image - an AJP Taylor, EP Thompson, or Eric Hobsbawm, bless ‘em - he actually cuts a very different kind of figure: exploratory, intrinsically multidisciplinary, and given to speculative imagination. Gissen delivered a fascinating, illuminating and often funny presentation which utterly reconfigured ideas of preservation and historical research.
He started, as few others did funnily enough, by quoting Nietzsche. In stating “scholars are not human beings”, Gissen was evoking the peculiarly tortured mode that academics, researchers, scholars can end up in. He suggested that “the more you go into the archive, the less you have to say about how people should live” and wonders whether perhaps the “philosopher and architect has more to offer”. He ponders whether his kind of research can indeed lead to “becoming something less than human being,” after Nietzsche. (He’s playing this up a little much, but anyone who’s done a Phd, or witnessed a friend go through one, will know the truth of this.)
By way of contrast, he brings up Reyner Banham (which others also did funnily enough), noting his “name gets tossed around a lot”, and how different his image was. “(Banham) constantly photographs himself in a car, on a bike, in the desert - never in an archive. He’s trying to show you that one can live as a scholar that’s very different from what we expect.”
Moving on to projects, he starts with that of his colleague Jorge Ateropalos Jorge Otero Pailos (corrected, thanks Javier), who conducts studies of dirt and pollution, and here we start hearing about attempts to reinvent the idea of preservation. Ateropalos proposed making preservations of pollution in a factory in Balsano, Italy. He casts the dirt on walls as a way of understanding - through preservation - the lived experience of the factory, the behaviour of the factory.
Gissen then mentions Michael Caratzas, and his project for the Cross-Bronx Thruway (an infamous Robert Moses project.) He proposes preserving the entire Cross-Bronx Expressway highway, rather than demolishing it. “What if you did preserve it?”, Gissen asks. Preserving means “to keep it in good shape and also an aspect of history …” It means both maintenance and understanding.
(It’s interesting to extend the idea of preservation in this direction. I’m personally opposed to preservation in the form of unnecessary heritage protection, taking the Cedric Price view of heritage (“York Minister? Flatten it.”) such that our cities continue to progress. But the preservation at work here is quite different to heritage.)
Gissen’s HTC Experiments (a “bloggish thing I started about 6 months ago”), is a great ongoing exloration of these issues - what he describes as “history as a form of experimentation”. One such project is located around a building for the California College of Arts in San Francisco, which is an adaptive re-use of a former bus shed. The building would have been full of fumes in its former life. Yet now that’s all gone. It’s one of two remaining of its type. In a sense, he says, the gentrification of such spaces means literally “less exhaust”. The buses and smokestacks disappear, taking the smoke with them. Gentrification “changes the actual atmosphere of a portion of the city.”
His proposal is to “reconstruct an exhaust plume as a sculptural element”. In effect, to denote this shift by illustrating what was once there, at least symbolically. (This is an idea I enjoy, and have used in my own work to some degree, exploring how the air quality in the Green Square Town Centre urban renewal project Sydney will have radically changed since its days as site of the city’s primary incinerator, a space subject to decades of community concerns over air quality. I proposed real-time air-quality monitoring, projecting data visualisations onto the defunct incinerator chimneys. Leaving aside issues of representation and the form of ‘progress’ it purports to entail, it’s interesting to note that gentrification does at least mean cleaner air.)
Similarly, Gissen describes a project for Pittsburgh, to “make Pittsburghians think about how the space has changed”. To understand the history of the city through the history of the air of the city. Particularly where “the air that’s been in the city is really quite foul.” Gissen asks “What if you just projected the atmosphere that used to be in the city?” He shows an illustration, looking akin to a Superstudio project, but made out of smoke. He then decided to make “a less utopian image” (less heroically Superstudio, in that sense) and showed a progression that’s “like a balloon that’s made of smoke (to indicate that it’s) actually a really positive sign. It makes you realise how the city has transformed, (and how) the atmosphere is designed in a way that’s different from the one that was there before.”
Gissen then shows another project .. “to reconstruct floating bathhouses in the Hudson” (and thus addressing water quality), and another, centred around a chance to explore the history of the park. His proposal here was to create “a history of the park in which the park doesn’t exist.” So it’s “a proposal to do a counter-history of New York in which the parks in the park system never happened. It makes people understand the history of the city differently …” (These are all interesting variations on these theme of highlighting what is not there - what in other areas we might say are ‘making the invisible visible’ strategies - but here dealing with the creation of alternate pasts or alternate presents, in order to highlight the difference something has made. Either the difference from removal (pollution) or addition (parks).)
Gissen shows a map of Midtown Manhattan from the air, noting that many innovations in cartography have happened around Manhattan (my friend Jack Schulze has just delivered one of the latest). Yet Gissen says that “no maps tell you what it feels like”. He means ‘feel’ as in environmental quality (rather than say accretion and dynamics of cultural capital, which is just as difficult to map in NYC, despite what some might claim.) In terms of the environmental quality of Manhattan, Gissen reckons that due to air conditioning “more indoor air was produced in this space than anywhere on Earth (until recently, possibly).”
Hence, an idea for an air conditioning map of Manhattan. Gissen’s interested in the work of Philippe Raum or Francois Roche - “or those that work with atmosphere”. “How does their work get preserved? You can’t photograph it. Why not have an archive in which the actual chemical content is preserved?”
Having started with Nietzsche, Gissen closes with an anecdote about his next door neighbour’s parrot. After many days of suffering the parrot’s incessant screeching, Gissen eventually realised that the parrot was imitating the sounds around their neighbourhood. It would squawk the buses’ brakes, or imitate the sound of washing up, and so on. Gissen sees the “parrot is a type of architectural and living archive” of his neighbourhood. He then speculates further, noting that some parrots might travel through war-zones, picking up the sounds they hear there. “So their song is of urban and social destruction,” he says. They end up in zoos, singing a song of distant conflict. He says when we look at “the way that non-human life can be used as an archive, we consider the way that the social, natural and historical can not easily be divided …”
In the Q&A, Geoff recalls the Duchamp piece 2cc of Paris air indicating it reminds him of Gissen’s approach, and wonders aloud about what the limits of preservation might be. Can we ‘preserve’ the Iraq war, or a traffic jam on the ‘10’ here in LA? Gissen says you can reconstruct anything - but preservation has its limits.
With an eye to my day job, I ask Gissen about the overlap between ‘his kind of preservation’ and planning and design in urban development. Both are involved in projections of alternative cities. Gissen projects alternate cities in order to explore history, to assess the results of interventions ; in urban design, we project alternate cities in order to explore the future, constructing complex models attempting to predict the city’s behaviour as a result of a potential intervention. It’s very similar, technically.
Gissen appears to like this notion, and draws out its multidisciplinary implications - that historians might be involved with designers more directly, working on shared models, projections, analysis. He thinks that “a return to the confusion of the 18th century would be interesting, where history was not so far removed and historians would engage in (this kind of) projection too”. (I wholeheartedly concur. We should draw ever more disciplines into design practice, particularly around modelling which can otherwise be extremely reductionistic.)
As Greg Smith points out to me afterwards, it’s great to see a historian draw. I suspect they might’ve done so more frequently once, but he’s right - it’s great to see this kind of creative historical provocation rendered in such imaginative and communicable ways. Gissen’s talk is full of possibilities, looking backwards and forwards.