Empowering Design – Interview with Keller Easterling

Keller Easterling Interviewed by Leonardo Dellanoce and Arjen Oosterman

Most people focus on object and form. Not Keller Easterling. She’s drawn to the in-between. Challenging the binaries of formal-informal, practical-impractical, like-dislike, right-wrong, Easterling points at extemporaneous design thinking that works with potentials and indeterminate forms. In this frame, space is an informational system where discrepancies between what an organization is saying and is actually doing open new territories for design to intervene.

Arjen Oosterman: For me, your work is very much about power, power structures and the architecture of power. It focuses on systems that are influencing and perhaps even defining our realities. Is this description of your work, maybe specifically referring to Extrastatecraft and Medium Design, correct or would you like to phrase it otherwise?

Keller Easterling: Yes, Extrastatecraft is about power and especially the power that is embedded in spatial arrangements. It looks at the ways in which designers might have their hands on those dials and faders of power.

AO: What triggered that investigation?

KE: I have long been looking at spatial products, repeatable formulas that are contagious around the world, and wondering what kind of form we would have to design to manipulate them. Since we are people who know about space, there is a chance that we know how to alter those structures of power – maybe as well as those who know only about econometrics or law.

AO: Am I right in saying that it started from a concern?

KE: Yes, that’s correct but also from studying that powerful kinds of form are embedded in space, wondering why we don’t have a robust artistic approach to making forms to deal with that power. We know how to make form as a shape or outline, but we are under-rehearsed in making forms that unfold over time and larger territories.

Leonardo Dellanoce: In terms of etymology there is certainly something interesting we can grasp from that. In Medium Design, one can read between the lines that if we take the artificial binary of formality and informality, informality can be understood as to ‘in-form’ – to put something into a form that is not yet shaped. While formality seems to be more about stabilizing a form.

KE: Right, the forms that I am talking about have some durability, but I would not call them stable. They are time-released, they might be explicit, they might be changeable, and they might be fueled by imbalance instead of homeostasis in the organization. The active forms that we could perhaps end up designing are indeterminate in order to be practical. So it is not indeterminate, as in being vague or inexplicit, but instead strategic and able to maneuver, to respond to moments when they are outmaneuvered, to adjust to changing conditions. This form-making is something like playing pool – having a talent to react and change within a set of conditions.

Pool, initial set-up

AO: For those who haven’t read Medium Design, what is the key argument that you propose?

KE: Maybe an inversion of object and field nourishes a habit of mind that is on the flip-side of some dominant cultural logics. Those dominant logics are often like blunt instruments that are ineffectual in relation to some of our most perennial stubborn problems. And maybe this habit of mind, whether it is addressing spatial or non-spatial problems, that provides new political and aesthetic capacities for addressing problems.

AO: To pick up on an earlier question, it is interesting that you don’t use the word structure, in particular because Extrastatecraft seems to suggest that there is a structure where you don’t see one – in opposition to the structures that we can, like politics, the government etc. This other structure might be more defining our ways of living and our use of space rather than the earlier mentioned ones.

KE: Structure has often been attached to a desire to know and stabilize. I am recognizing structures but seeing them in collision and joining others who reject both exclusively structuralist or post-structuralist positions. Forms can be like writing code. You never finish writing code. You rewrite it continuously. Again, it has to be indeterminate in order to be practical.

LD: In Medium Design you bring forward an interesting notion that is the one of mistakes – that the accumulation of mistakes, if you will, can create a successful design or a successful situation.

KE: Yes, I mention Parrondo’s Paradox, a game theory proposing that if you alternate between two games and each have a high probability of losing, you can start winning. It is something like the friction of a ratchet. In fact, when the results are graphed, they look like a ratchet that has traction against problems. Problems need more problems in order to catalyze or leaven the organization. The desire of having a right answer is, in this frame, a mistake.

AO: Also in relation to structure, how does that notion for you relate to continuous and discontinuous? This is something I found whilst reading Medium Design but more as an undercurrent, rather than explicitly.

KE: There is a temporal dimension to this form-making that has a novel set of aesthetics, pleasures and political capacities. What I want to point at is that it is a temporal dimension that suggests continuities or ways that form is unfolding. I don’t mean to say that continuities suggest that there is a smooth world, to use the Deleuzian term, I think it is lumpy and rough.

AO: There we indeed encounter the word smooth and the notion of the smooth surface of ISO management research. Smooth is a highly interesting notion and actually in this issue we will have a text by René Boer about the Smooth City. Some people recognize that there are certain conditions surfacing that can be called smooth – are you among them?

KE: The words free and smooth are strangely similar, and they lead away to inversion and paradox. You have to keep asking “whose smoothness” or “whose freedom”.

AO: You might be interested in what can be called ‘pockets of exception’ in territorial terms, that seem to be at odds with this notion of smooth. However, perhaps there are some developments at present, mainly digital and maybe also in relation to social media but definitely in relation to big data, that almost make these differences and discontinuities irrelevant. It seems as though a structure now appears that overwrites these irregularities and bypasses that kind of narrative.

KE: I think that is really not my sense of it. In either digital or spatial networks, I am interested in the discrepancy between their story or persuasion and the way they actually function. For instance, a social media platform purports to be information rich, but is actually filtered through a dumb and violent binary of likes and dislikes. What I am looking for are organizations that are information rich. Assigning to the newest digital technologies a kind of superiority or a greater ability to handle information is a mistake. Especially with medium design thinking, I am trying to see space itself as an information system and a mixing chamber for different types of information technologies. Digital and spatial information systems can make each other smarter or dumber. A mixture of information systems, offers a much smarter organization.

AO: What is interesting about this information richness in comparison to more mundane one dimensional ‘yes/no systems’?

KE: I am trying to rehearse a way of looking at a split-screen where there is the message that the organization is giving you and then there is the actual disposition of that organization, what it is actually doing – separating what the organization is saying from what it is doing. Medium Design is trying to rehearse the idea of being able to see all kinds of things that go undeclared in organizations – being able to see latent potential and temperament in the organization, but also being able to work with the indeterminacy of that disposition. These are parts of medium design where one is not only interested in the object but also in the matrix of rules and relationships in which the object is suspended. It is like an oncologist who is not only looking at the tumor, but also at the chemical fluctuations in the surrounding tissue. How do you do that? How do you design within that?

AO: Is Medium Design also a kind of plea then? Are you advocating a focus on design or is it purely an analytical term?

KE: It is definitely a focus on design. And it is meant to nourish architectural and urban thinking. But it is also treating any reader like a designer. It is not just architects, but broader culture who likes to declare, to have the right answers, to give things a name, to see the object instead of the surrounding environment. I am hoping that flipping from figure to field, from object to environment refreshes an approach to both spatial and nonspatial problems.

AO: You also teach – how do you interact with your design students with such notions? Does it primarily add to the understanding of their own contexts and to make them more accomplished designers? Or is there also perhaps the idea of the expansion of design itself in different territories and taking these as materials to work with and to work on?

KE: It is about expanding the territory in which to work. Any good designer for centuries has been working on medium design in my view. There is nothing new about that, it is just under-rehearsed in our discipline right now. An object may retain its objecthood or it may broadcast effects beyond itself. Also, now that most of the space on Earth is made by repeatable formulas, you can think about new kinds of sites within a matrix where one is making switches and multipliers as well as buildings – components that are contagious or things that inflect and have a kind of population effect. One can design protocols of interplay. Rather than designing just a master-plan, one designs an interplay between components in a city. It is something like a calculus function between countering or complementary forces. In teaching, I often notice that when you step into that macro-organizational realm, it can generate many architectural precipitates. There are a lot of physical objects to design. An unconventional site can generate many conventional sites. If you would look with half-closed eyes at the wall in our studio, you would see tons of designs at all scales, from details to buildings to neighborhoods and cities. It is a matter of seeing that design positioned and empowered in different ways.

LD: You also mention a new figure of the true designer-activist.

KE: Yes, I am trying to say that medium design does offer some extra political dimension because it is often working with things that are undeclared. It is working with discrepancy, latency and indeterminacy. There are ways in which a scale to be able to see and manipulate the medium, can potentially contribute to a form of activism that is capable of taking on various stealthy organizations in global political culture.

Gyrodrive, flying car queueing in the traffic

LD: Do you have concrete design projects that exemplify this habit of mind of medium design?

KE: I’m working on all kinds of very practical protocols of interplay. One can think not only of making objects, but of operating within a larger system, putting the design machine into reverse. There is a protocol for subtracting architecture for instance – retreating from flood plains, contracting extended suburbs, pulling away from preserved sensitive landscapes. Another example surfaced as I was working on the idea of the spatial switch. Automated vehicles are treated like means to perfect driving. But if they are used in lieu of transport, there is a boomerang effect. If every seat in the train is the size of a car there is spectacular congestion – very smart vehicles and a very dumb traffic jam. But, maybe there is an essential spatial variable missing from the calculation. While we usually look to the newest technology for a solution (e.g. flying cars), what if we change the relationship or the wiring with a spatial volume that acts like a switch – a means to upshift and downshift into transportation for different capacities. The switch would be a new cultural pleasure, as well as a smarter way to organize investment in infrastructure and mobility. Spatial and digital information systems would make each other smarter. So designing that switch would be medium design.

Smooth City is the New Urban