Junkspace

OtherInter.net, a small consulting group co-run by my friend Toby Shorin, has started up a series of workshops with folks from the community. Drew Austin of Kneeling Bus is teaching a course called the Digital Transformation of Physical Space, which I’ll be enrolled in over the the next four weeks. I’ll be keeping track of the discussions we have, for myself and others in the group. Some of the ideas in these posts were advanced by classmates, and I’ll try to give credit when I can.

Junkspace,” the infamous Rem Koolhaas essay, is our introduction to the workshop, and Austen cites one of its closing lines as a course mantra (“Conceptually, each monitor, each TV screen is a substitute for a window; real life is inside, while cyberspace has become the great outdoors”). Cyberspace meets meatspace, the layers of interaction between real & virtual, the decline of physical space as an organizing principle of human life.

Koolhaas writes off resonance more than coherent description or argument; his claims are often self-contradicting even at the sentence level, one clause refusing to following from the rest. (“Junkspace” the essay is stylistically a work of “junkwriting”: flamboyant surfaces over an incoherent, psychedelic structure. Rem is pulling from his conceptual toolkit on this one, using what he has called—in writings on Dalí—the paranoid-critical method, a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectifications of delirious associations and interpretations.”) But a few qualities consistent to junkspace emerge over a reading nonetheless. Flexibility & modularity, a provisional quality: There is something strange about ballrooms, for instance: huge wastelands kept column-free for ultimate flexibility. An emphasis on surface over structure, a stylistic pastiche of collapsing historic reference: 13% Roman, 8% Bauhaus and 7% Disney (neck and neck), 3% Art Nouveau, followed closely by Mayan. Last an aesthetic incoherence, the mess of bottom-up aesthetics. The exact opposite of Fascist, top-down design, junkspace’s plan is a radar screen where individual pulses survive for unpredictable periods of time in a Bacchanalian free-for-all. Coherent style we can understand as an underlying unity between aspects, the encoding of the world through a symbolic order. When many such individually coherent systems and styles meet and compete for attention, the result is mess, the same way every pigment mixed makes brown.

There is a genericism inherent to junkspace. In the design of coworking offices and shopping malls, the flow of people is statistical-hypothetical, designed for a generic, constantly changing set tenants rather than any specific use needs. Web apps’ central feature, similarly, is their modularity, with default templates for posts allowing user content to cohere, a balance between bottom-up user flexibility and top-down coherence of style. The trade-off that governs this last property seems ineliminable. The more freedom you give users (or merchants, in a market, or residents, in a neighborhood), the messier the emergent aesthetic: differing ideas of beauty, free rider problems, and the constant rivalry for distinction in an individualistic society. City skyscrapers built to clash, rather than blend. Think the correlation between clutter and affordances on MySpace vs. Instagram; Android vs. Apple.

(Kohzy points out that augmented reality will lead to a Wild West of aesthetic mess, brands and businesses competing for space and attention the same way the Vegas Strip, or a shopping mall, or digital space, already does.)

New York, most of us agreed, has surprisingly little junkspace: sections of Chinatown, Midtown, underground PATH stations. Much of the experience is that of a midcentury city, with walking and open air active features of everyday life. Compare to the Midwest, where Austin grew up and the dominant aesthetic mode is, in his description, junkspace: billboard signage, shopping mall, air-conditioned sprawl.

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Clayton, a designer from Colorado, points out similarities between Rem’s factoring and Debord’s:

The diffuse spectacle accompanies the abundance of commodities, the undisturbed development of modern capitalism. Here every individual commodity is justified in the name of the grandeur of the production of the totality of objects of which the spectacle is an apologetic catalogue. Irreconcilable claims crowd the stage of the affluent economy’s unified spectacle; different star-commodities simultaneously support contradictory projects for provisioning society: the spectacle of automobiles demands a perfect transport network which destroys old cities, while the spectacle of the city itself requires museum-areas. Therefore the already problematic satisfaction which is supposed to come from the consumption of the whole, is falsified immediately since the actual consumer can directly touch only a succession of fragments of this commodity happiness, fragments in which the quality attributed to the whole is obviously missing every time.

The ideas are similar, but the emphasis on capitalist spectacle (by both Rem & Debord) ascribes more intentionality to contemporary visual incoherence than I buy; my interpretation is more of a coordination problem, where distributed decision-making and lots of moving parts compound the intrinsic difficulties of achieving aesthetic coherence. For an emphasis on the formal-aesthetic features of junkspace, Sarah Perry’s “Tendrils of Mess in Our Brains” is the best factoring I know. She opens:

All the new thinking about mess is apologetics: what if mess is good? Perhaps mess makes us more creative. Messiness is a sign of intelligence. All that. As a pathologically messy person, I cannot concur with this glorification of mess. Being in a messy environment is stressful and discouraging. There is an unease that remains even when you block out the conscious awareness of mess.

It’s worth noting that the psychology here is short of universal. I lived for a while near the Myrtle-Broadway strip and had friends, visiting, regularly remark on the ambient stress of the area. I had moved to the area because I found it bustling and full of energy. It’s hard to tell from Street View; the streets are not as crowded as they get, and there is the sensory remove of the image, instead of immersion, but the area is all fluorescent signs and traffic. Simp’ and I have entertained the idea that the relevant cognitive differences, here, have something to do with predictive processing’s top-down vs. bottom-up paradigm: people who are top-heavy, cognitively, might be energized by the slight but ultimately controllable disruptions in their bottom-up input; those who are bottom-heavy, meanwhile, encounter stress in their attempts to coherently model (“sum up” and pull patterns from) the chaotic sensory input.

Perry persuasively argues what is implicit in “Junkspace”: that natural materials almost never decay into mess, while man-made materials almost inevitably do. In fact, examples of mess from the natural world are difficult to generate, while examples from the built environment are abundant:

I’m not sure what to make of this claim; it seems like full grokking would rely on a deep ontological shift from my usual refusal to differentiate the artificial from the natural. (I have yet to be persuaded as to a meaningful underlying distinction.) But we can better understand junkspace, especially its incoherence of clashing styles, through her citation of Sam Burnstein—“Messes are low-intentionality as a whole but high-intentionality in their component pieces”—and designer Chris Beiser—“Mess is an incomplete aesthetic experience composed of a surplus of objects that produce aesthetic experiences (often themselves incomplete) of vastly different types and durations, without a canonical ordering.”