Relational Thinking in Media Architecture: Interview with Marcus Foth

At the last edition of the Media Architecture Biennale, one paper managed to spark a debate that spanned for the following two years. Francesco Degl’Innocenti and Arjen Oosterman reached out to the author, Marcus Foth, to talk about urban informatics, “cathedral thinking” and the potential of media architecture.

AO

A good starting point for this interview is the paper you presented at the last Media Architecture Biennale (2018) in Beijing, and the relation it has with ecology. We’re curious to hear more about your understanding of ecology, whether this is the sum total of human and ‘all things natural’, or whether there’s also a digital ecology coming in.

MF

That paper at MAB 2018, ‘More-Than-Human Media Architecture’1, is actually inspired by a much longer trajectory in history that stems from work in the environmental humanities as well as with other colleagues in design. And our more modest contribution with this paper has been to raise awareness in the media architecture community that these kinds of debates and this kind of discourse is happening in other parts of academia: we wanted to start a discussion with our peers and colleagues, but also people in practice to say these are questions others are struggling with and thinking about, what are we going to do about it?

With regards to ecology and architecture specifically, I think there are a couple of ways that people in urbanism and in architecture, and other parts of the built environment use certain kinds of ontological assumptions and epistemological norms, often without question. One of them is the separation of built environment and natural environment. We use this term ‘built environment’ quite frequently, and it creates a delineation of what humans have built, and then everything else, which is wilderness or nature. Part of our research is to better understand what it would take to break through this binary, whether we can have a recognition that we are not the center of all that exists. The MAB paper is trying to problematize exceptionalism around human existence where we see ourselves as the pinnacle and at the center of everything.

The kind of epistemological underpinning of more-than-human theory isn’t so much what we are used to from a Western worldview that’s usually based on linear thinking. A more-than-human perspective is more akin to relational thinking, which means that it’s much more circular. And these days a lot of this gets talked about, actually, in industry and in government, for example, terms like the circular economy. But in fact, they’re not that new. In Australia, for instance, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been continuously living on this continent for over 65,000 years, using a lot of these kinds of epistemological and cosmological philosophies. So there is both – a lot to unlearn and a lot to learn.

With regards to the way we approach the built environment, we are advocating not just to reduce harm (media architecture installations, for instance, use LED lights and electricity and digital infrastructure, they need cabling and hardware components, and then there is the invisible part, like the data and the energy). We want to be more progressive than that. And that means to imagine architecture that is making a net positive contribution – a term coined by a colleague of mine, Prof. Janis Birkeland, who has been for a long time advocating for architects to embrace a design approach in their work, that isn’t just thinking of reducing its footprint, such as its carbon footprint, for instance. It’s far more progressive, she’s advocating for an architecture that is net positive, not just with regards to aesthetics, but actually with regards to the contribution to planetary and ecological systems (netpositivedesign.org). So, they would produce more energy than they use, they would produce more freshwater than they produce wastewater, and so forth. It’s like a tree, a natural entity that makes a contribution. What we produce as humanity should make a similar contribution, rather than it just being seen as a little bit more efficient consumption.

The more-than-human perspective is more akin to relational thinking than linear thinking.

AO

And where does media architecture come in?

MF

It comes in three ways. The easiest is reducing harm, for instance light pollution. The way that façades and other forms of media architecture illuminate the city is nice for the human eye, but it is actually contributing to the harm of nocturnal animals. In Australia, a lot of native arboreal animals like possums are being displaced from their urban habitat in tree-tops as a result of such installations: it actually means that all of a sudden, a tree is not inhabitable anymore by our more-than-human friends. Similarly, insects and even birds are attracted to light sources, so I think light itself is a huge part of that first category. 

The second category deals with media architecture’s ability to make a net positive contribution in its own right. That is still a very nascent area, I haven’t seen many examples that are able to do that. But that is an area to be explored much further, beyond just the old media architecture troves of advertisement and bedazzlement, the wow factor. Until a few years ago the MAB award categories were very commercial: if you’ve made the most money and you have the biggest advertisement – maybe it’s Time Square in Manhattan – you won the ‘money award’. It’s puzzling that we think of scale and magnitude in that way, but it’s interesting how since then we completely reformed the jury’s criteria looking at much more positive and constructive award categories. I think that’s going in the right direction.

And then the third category has the huge potential of amplifying human voices calling for change, especially the dissenting ones. This can be unlocked by amplifying that level of the public sphere, like we had a couple of years ago in Brisbane. The city was hosting the G20 Summit, and half of the population fled the chaos. We had on one side all the leaders of the world gathered into a high-security convention center: and 400 meters away protests in a local park. But they were not cross-communicating, just talking within their own little echo chambers. And I think that’s where media architecture has the potential to make a significant contribution, especially now that the internet’s original aspirations of a ‘global village’ have turned into a series of corporate platforms and ‘walled gardens’. It’s the cities that I still have hope for. So, media architecture could be the final frontier, the final bastion that can potentially provide the level of amplification and community activism necessary, as well as the dialectical engagement between different voices, right? And that can happen in cities. It already does.

FDI

It seems you have high hopes for media architecture, a term that from its inception, some ten years ago, has itself seen several stages of development and evolution. And every stage has been different from the previous one, and probably different from the following one. So, can you give us your definition of media architecture at the present moment?

MF

It is like two directions meeting in the middle. On one side a whole bunch of colleagues in the digital space – computer scientists, interaction designers, etc. – that started to become really, really interested in the physical. Nowadays that’s called ubiquitous computing, urban computing, urban informatics. And on the other side you have architects, urban designers, and so on, people that are trained to design the physical, the built environment – which is cities, the tectonic, the bricks and mortar – now they have started to become more and more interested in the digital. And it just so happens that they’ve started calling themselves media architects, because ‘media’ refers to both the digital and the communicative parts of this work. Of course, there have always been many ways in which architects have used digital tools, even very advanced approaches, but often more as a way to aid the architectural design process in order to produce the physical, whereas media architecture is actually about designing a hybrid physical/digital artefact.

FDI

It’s pretty clear that there is an ontological problem with sustaining human-centered design. Criticizing the classic dichotomy of nature and culture you aim at repositioning the individual as part of the larger planetary ecosystem it interacts with, but my question is: ‘How much’ more than human? How do you define who becomes a stakeholder in this new ecology? If we cluster stakeholders based on decision-making agency, our reality is rapidly expanding toward the inclusion of technological beings. So, in this ecology, how do we actually construct the stakeholder map? Does yours involve only ecological beings, or also digital agents?

MF

The critique that we offered is based on an assumption that a certain part of media architecture is embedded in a cultural framework that is also compatible with economic dynamics, giving us answers to the question: how do we do business? Which is: how do we bring media architecture from an idea in our minds, and translate it into reality? So, the question around stakeholders is defined a lot by processes and procedures in that cultural framework.

But when we move to a ‘more than’ human approach, and in parallel move the cultural frame from, say, Amsterdam to a culture that values our relationship with other natural beings and processes – a culture that respects our very tight entanglements with the planet. Then, all of a sudden, these kinds of stakeholder assessments look very different. There’s Bruce Munro’s internationally acclaimed media architecture installation Field of Light2 here in the center of Australia, in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It features a million light bulbs glowing in the dark. To do such a project, you have to do a completely different stakeholder mapping, because you are actually on ancient land that is owned by the traditional landowners of Uluru – the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people – who respect and care for country and value their relationship with the land and with a commitment to stewardship of their birthplace. And so all of a sudden, because the cultural frame is located geographically around that ancient land, the media architecture project had to do something completely different, it had to actually engage with the traditional owners, it had to culturally understand what they value, and respect it with the way that artwork would interact with the rest of the landscape; local nocturnal animals; the power supply; and the physicality and the logistics from the cabling to the changing of the light spectrum.

This is just an example of where changing our cultural framework – often geographically – actually changes quite quickly. Even just from Brisbane to Uluru you’d get to a completely different methodology for media architecture.

AO

If we zoom in on the human component then, media architecture engages with the community at the small scale; it’s local, pretty local. How does that relate to the larger scale issues?

MF

I think there are ways to do it horizontally, and ways to do it vertically. You have examples like Carlo Ratti, both with his research practice at the MIT Senseable City Lab and his design practice in Italy, who has managed to build a portfolio showing a variety and diversity of projects, and that is a valid approach: breadth of scope. What is interesting to contemplate is the vertical one: scale, reach, and impact. What would a vertical counterpart to that approach look like? Perhaps letting go of the immediate architectural practice and entering politics, right? If you’re talking about the vertical scale, it’s being able to exercise influence on governance, rather than the physical dimension alone. In design research we’ve been using a new term, a verbification – something that is usually just a noun, we turn into a verb. For instance, ‘infrastructuring’ as an action.

The vertical approach is interesting: scale, reach, and impact. Perhaps letting go of the architectural practice and entering politics.

MF

The easiest way to explain it is: If as designer your object is a train, even the most perfect train can’t do anything until you also consider the rail network that allows it to move. The rail equivalent for my iPhone is the App Store. It’s the infrastructure that puts all sorts of new innovation onto my phone on an ongoing basis. It’s an ecosystem that the designers have thought about, in addition to the form factor of the hardware, and the interface design of the software. Now, in addition to infrastructuring, co-design researcher Prof. Liesbeth Huybrechts and her team have now come up with a second term, called ‘institutioning’.3 And the thinking behind that is that oftentimes architectural practice stays very local, and it often remains as a single case. It is often lacking scale as in the magnitude of the impact that you can engender with your activity. Huybrechts’ argument suggests to me that through the existing institutions that humanity has already come up with, like our institutions of government, parliament, the legislative, the executive and so on, designers can actually amplify the scale of their products, of their services and of their ideas. And some of it goes into the terrain of regulation and policy.

Take Uber for example, Uber as a design product, as a startup. When it first came out it was tiny, only limited to a couple of cities, and it was limited to limousines – quite expensive, all black. Not really the way we know it these days. And the difference wasn’t the design that focused on the app; the difference was the design that focused on understanding how to use the institutions that needed to be unlocked to give Uber the ability to operate in all of these different cities. It’s different to the roads already there, it wasn’t infrastructuring, but they didn’t have permission. Their approach was to look at institutioning, unlocking – and often using quite unethical practices I might add – the ability to launch the ride sharing service in all these different cities, and it mushroomed, and it got bigger and bigger. And once you had more customers that wanted the service, these customers became your allies because they were then lobbying the governments to make it happen, give permission – let’s regulate them, give them a license, a permit, so that they can operate in our city. Can media architects learn from such examples and employ institutioning strategies – not for profit, but for good?

A third term which I think may be the most challenging because it fights one of the most ingrained and tacitly held assumptions of the world – capital – is the verbification ‘commoning’, from the word ‘the commons’. Now the commons refers to a space, a site, or maybe a tool that can be used by many people maybe as a social good. And in design research, the word commoning is then describing the thinking and ideas that are geared towards untangling ourselves from the shackles of the capitalist system – the capitalocene.4 As a designer or architect, what often doesn’t get questioned is the design brief, who are your stakeholders, who’s going to pay for it, what’s the budget? Those are all questions of a capitalist system, assuming the rule of competition and market forces and labor forces. So commoning is trying to imagine an alternative economic framework that design products are released into, without the default mode of ‘selling things’. How can we have something that is free, yet still adds value, and maybe can sustain itself through the efforts of users, customers, producers, clients, or stakeholders that recognize that value and they want to keep it alive not just by paying for it, but by doing something for it. And that goes back to again the relational type of thinking and the circular economy idea that I mentioned earlier. I suppose this could be described by the notion of stewardship, so that I’m the steward of this idea, of this thing that we’ve been giving birth to. So commoning as a design term is trying to refocus the designerly imagination, the creative imagination, on identifying new spaces where design artifacts and services can exist within a new economic framework. It’s actually trying to orient design activity towards a new economic model: still imaginative, innovative, and industrious, but without the need for industry.

I think it’s those three – infrastructuring, institutioning, commoning, potentially in combination with each other – that could provide this aspirational vertical type of scale making.

Can media architects learn to employ institutioning strategies – not for profit, but for good?

FDI

Based on the example of Uber, it sounds like you are really talking about time rather than scale, or rather than scale alone. The strength of the gig-economy was the time-lag between deployment and regulation, that was the maximizing factor of scale. The more-than-human seems especially a push to imagine post-anthropocentric futures…

MF

Time has multiple dimensions and multiple speeds. Think about how different time is perceived in the digital or in the physical world. And, of course, there’s an assumption that what architectural graduate students produce will last, the emphasis on engineering is there for a reason, as the sound understanding that architects have a responsibility because eventually it can cause humans harm if not done right and built soundly. Whereas in media architecture it’s often a much different time dimension: I mean, we do have installations that also last – or that are supposed to be designed to last – but oftentimes it’s still much shorter than the rest of the building, whether because of a novelty factor, or the owner wants to see something new, or the technology is updated, or the hardware needs an upgrade due to planned obsolescence.5

FDI

Reminds me of Stewart Brand’s famous diagram, the 6 temporal layers of a building.

MF

But there are already three dimensions when it comes to the way that we perceive innovation, right? There’s the building, which might be 100 years old, the façade, that might need an update every 3-4 years, and the content, ideally always up to date – every time I walk-past I want to see new content. So, we don’t necessarily have that fast perception of innovation for the building itself. But time fuels this other interesting competition with new real estate developments. I sometimes compare it to the way Hollywood creates anticipation for the next blockbuster: there is a movie trailer, then the hype makes you want to go to the movies, then you have a quick bedazzlement, then the next trailer makes you wait and want it all over again.6 Architecture is now doing the same thing, it’s quite sad: raising expectations, tension, drama, and then there is the big reveal. It’s interesting how time as a dimension is creating something equivalent to fast consumerism even in architecture, which you wouldn’t anticipate easily. It was only two years ago that my colleagues at the University of Sydney celebrated their 100th anniversary of the architecture faculty, and they did something quite extraordinary: they actually came together and did an event that was called ‘Cathedral Thinking’.7 In medieval days the architect that would design a cathedral would never survive it, because building a cathedral would take much longer than a lifetime. But they did it anyway. I think that’s fantastic. At the same time it’s gobsmacking, because who would embark on these kinds of projects these days? We want it yesterday; we want to see it immediately. In Japan and China, there’s skyscrapers that go up in a week – under COVID-19, you have hospitals that were created in a matter of hours. So, we were all asked to engage in cathedral thinking.8 And it was quite challenging because we were not used to it, it was the complete opposite of what everyone expects. And there we were saying, “Okay, what about a 300-year timeframe?”

We were all asked to engage in cathedral thinking: “Okay, what about a 300-year timeframe?”

FDI

Do you see media architecture coming into this story at any point?

MF

Yes, I do, and actually media architecture more so than the rest of architecture. Mine is of course a generalization, and as any generalization there are shades of grey and exceptions to the rule, but I noticed that media-architects are usually more progressive and innovative than conventional architects; they are less conservative. Maybe it’s because from the beginning they embraced this other interest around the digital, and this made them explore parts of the design field out of their comfort zone. They seem to be much more inquisitive and curious about new ways of thinking. If I was to compare the general field of architecture with the little island of media architecture, I have high hopes for this community to be pioneers, leading new and progressive thinking.

And then the other part of media architecture – media as in the whole concept around media theory, as messaging and communicating – that is so essential to mobilize humanity. If we only look at the old media like Rupert Murdoch and News Corp and Fox News and so forth, then God help us… But similarly, the platforms that have turned the internet into walled gardens, big corporations are just keeping you nicely tucked in your own small bubble… That is also not advancing humanity at all. So, I think it is media architecture installations that are artistic – aesthetics but also activism.9 They are actually able to challenge and provoke new thinking, and they are also out there in the public space, where you don’t yet have as many of these algorithmic filters, which is one of the benefits of being able to use the public sphere as a way to deliberate on some of these challenges, because where else would it happen? But the smart city infrastructure is quickly catching up. It’s a worry.

AO

So you see media architecture’s power as a disrupting force.

MF

Well, I see it in using the agglomeration of people in cities as a way to mobilize and build momentum. It’s not necessarily activism only in the sense of protest, it’s also activism as an action, like, “what are we going to do about it?” I think protest is important, but we have also got to think of the other side of the coin; we got to come up with new ways of doing things. And so, one of them is ‘commoning’, as I mentioned earlier, which is to try and identify these new spaces of cooperation and collaboration – cooperativism for instance. And technology plays a huge role in that regard as well, like blockchain for example, and the way it can enable a much more direct relationship between people without a lot of noise in between.

FDI

That also leads back to the question of agency: in algorithmic systems such as blockchain, humans and algorithms stand on equal footing as decision making agents; that’s why earlier we mentioned a restructuring of the concept of ecology.

MF

Yes, we are doing quite a bit of work making sense of digital ecologies, but without getting too big, the digital has already played such a huge role in the architecture of cities. It’s what Stephen D.N. Graham called software-sorted geographies: strolling through the city as Baudelaire’s flaneur, you’d experience a certain level of serendipity in the encounters with people and places on the basis of mere agglomeration. Wayfinding from A to B using your personal digital device is like going through a tunnel, because it’s like the shortest distance. But this way of navigating and negotiating with the city cuts you away from other parts of that same environment. Ethan Zuckerman gave a brilliant keynote at CHI 2011 about the serendipity lost to digital devices and data-driven filtering recommendations and algorithms that are at play, not just with regards to wayfinding.10 I wrote a little piece about how smart cities are portrayed as being about data analysis, geared towards optimization, efficiency gains, and management. And my piece was advocating that smart cities should be about getting lost, the notion of losing yourself while travelling from A to B, in the sense of exploring and reinventing this idea of the flâneur…11

FDI

…at least as a feature.

MF

You want to choose, you know. Maybe today it’s the fastest way I want to go. But there are also all sorts of particular situations and scenarios where I want to find the least polluted way, or the greenest way, the most scenic way – maybe the most incognito way to get me home. But so the data streams wouldn’t align necessarily with efficiency or speed, or sometimes towards commerce. There is some suspicion that Google would use wayfinding to optimize not your travel speed, but to put you next to all the advertisements that they know it’s out there in the urban landscape. Through Google’s Street View, they’ve mapped where all the billboards are so they can actually direct a whole lot of eyeballs to these other parts of the city, guiding them past advertisements. And I mean, whether that actually happens in practice, we don’t really know because of confidentiality, but there is undoubtedly a lot of power involved in controlling the navigation systems of modern cities.

AO

It’s a very reassuring statement to conclude this conversation.






This Zoom enabled conversation took place on 18 December 2020.

Volume 59 – Futures Implied is the result of a collaboration between Volume and the Media Architecture Biennale. This year’s edition MAB20 will take place from June 24-July 2nd as an online event. For more information about the program, see www.mab20.org

  1. Foth, Marcus & Caldwell, Glenda (2018) More-than-human media architecture. In Zhigang, C (Ed.) Proceedings of the 4th Media Architecture Biennale Conference. Association for Computing Machinery, United States of America, pp. 66-75. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/121705/

  2. Bruce Munro, Field of Light, https://www.brucemunro.co.uk/work/field-of-light/

  3. https://doi.org/10.1080/15710882.2017.1355006

  4. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1235036

  5. Foth, MarcusMitchell, PetaMann, MoniqueRittenbruch, Markus, & Anastasiu, Irina (2021) Some Environmental Sustainability Concerns about IoT-enabled Smart Cities. Input paper for the Horizon Scanning Project ‘The Internet of Things’ on behalf of the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACoLA). Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), Australia., https://eprints.qut.edu.au/134146/

  6. Foth, MarcusCaldwell, GlendaFredericks, Joel, & Volz, Kirsty (2018) Augmenting cities beyond bedazzlement: Empowering local communities through immersive urban technologies. In Workshop Proceedings of Augmenting Cities and Architecture with Immersive Technologies, Media Architecture Biennale (MAB-18). Media Architecture Biennale, s://mab18vrarmrworkshop.wordpress.com/workshop-papers/, pp. 1-4. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/122841/

  7. https://www.sydney.edu.au/architecture/news-and-events/events/cathedral-thinking.html

  8. Couch Session with Dr Lian Loke, Part of the Centenary Symposium: Cathedral Thinking – Designing for the Next Century., Youtube video

  9. Paulos, EricFoth, MarcusSatchell, ChristineKim, YounghuiDourish, Paul, & Choi, Hee-Jeong (Eds.) (2008) Ubiquitous sustainability: Citizen science and activism. Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Press, United States of America. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/14130/

  10. Zuckerman, Ethan, CHI Keynote: Desperately Seeking Serendipity (May 5, 2011), Link

  11. Foth, Marcus, Why we should design smart cities for getting lost (April 7, 2016), Link

When the walls get voices