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Shannon Mattern is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. She wrote a book about libraries, another about maps, and a third about the city as a mediated environment. She contributes a regular long-form column about urban data and media infrastructures to Places, a journal focusing on architecture, urbanism, and landscape, and she collaborates on public design and interactive projects and exhibitions. You can find her at Words in Space.
Intensely committed to unique collaborations against all odds, Jessica acknowledges that the deepest beauty comes from the mysteries discovered through connection.

Shannon Mattern is
In Wild Air



Culture

Cylinder Seals


Just north of Charles McKim’s gleaming rotunda at the Morgan Library in New York is a richly paneled, double-height, bookshelf-lined room that once served as the office for Belle da Costa Greene, Pierpoint Morgan’s library director, who, in 1883, was born to prominent African-American parents, yet who, for much of her adult life, sought to “pass” as white. Today, that office houses a collection of ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals from the fourth through first millennium BCE. Featuring scenes of Mesopotamian life, clashes between animals, or human subjects worshipping their gods, these seals were carved on semiprecious stones of only about an inch in length, perforated on their axes, strung with string, and often worn around their owners’ necks – ready-to-hand to serve both as amulets for protection and good luck, and as markers of identity and authenticity. Rolled over wet clay, the seal would leave its impression, unroll its engraved scene in a fashion that has always seemed to me very much proto-cinematic. I’ve imagined these gadgets as reverse-zoetropes: centrifugal rather than centrifugal scene-makers. Their tactile impressions would then serve to seal doors, jars, and other containers, or to authenticate documents.

Thus, the opulent room where Greene performed her revised identity, bedecked in high fashion and jewels, now houses early “wearables” that allowed the ancients to impress their own identities upon the world.

People

In the Company of Dogs


People become “humanity” only in relation to the larger world that we inhabit alongside other species and things and histories. I’m most moved and fascinated by people when I observe them in quiet, unselfconscious acts of care. When I see them trying, often imperfectly, to do good, to be kind. And based on years of observation, I can say with some confidence that people often become their best selves in the company of dogs.

Places

晚晴


There’s a particular place that exists only when time and the elements conspire. The Chinese have a word for it, 晚晴, but as far as I know, there’s no English equivalent.

Early-evening thunderstorms were common in the summers of my Appalachian youth. Near the end of an azure day, right around dinner time, the grey clouds would roll in, unleashing a quick torrent of rain and thunder. As those clouds then pressed eastward and the ripe sun re-emerged just over the mountaintops, a mist would arise from the fields. The sun’s horizontal light, filtered through the evaporating haze, made everything glisten. The Golden Hour softened every edge, bathing the world in an apricot haze, delimiting a place that existed somewhere between the celestial, the terrestrial, and the ethereal.

Things

Roentgen Desk


Much of my research and teaching focus on how we organize the world around us: how we use boxes and shelves and protocols and classification systems to impose structure on things and ideas. Sometimes those drawers and compartments serve not to effect order and efficiency, but to foster whimsy and exploration. The Bachelardian drawer, taken to the extreme, was realized in the 18th-century Roentgen desk, a tightly packed mechanical masterpiece poised to explode its hidden drawers, false bottoms, and extending armatures. This furniture performs; as Geoff Manaugh proposes, it “tests the limits of volumetric self-demonstration, offering little in the way of useful storage space and simply showing off, performing, a spatial Olympics of shelves within shelves and spaces hiding spaces.” Even the furniture’s marquetry, its veneered and ornamented surfaces, depict other rooms or spatial topologies, serving as interfaces to alternate dimensions. Such desks and cabinets might not be efficient means of storing files or writing implements – after all, most of the its drawers are occupied by other drawers, and its surfaces are too nice to write on – but these pieces, with their exponential dimensions of expansion, can be said to furnish the intellect and imagination, to propose the possibilities of other spatial ontologies.

Thoughts

Palimpsets


The traces left by our predecessors – immediate or remote – have always enchanted and bedeviled me. A few of my middle- and high-school teachers were exasperatingly slapdash in their approach to chalkboard-erasure; they had no “technique” whatsoever. As I’d watch them clumsily swirl the eraser across the board, leaving craggy little islands of residual text, I’d wail internally: No! You’re doing it wrong! Yet I did derive perverse pleasure upon entering a room, after a class period change, and finding a forensic scene on the board before me. Scanning for clues, I’d try to piece together the missing words or reassemble the equations that had occupied the room’s previous occupants. Later, I learned about the much more sophisticated forensic techniques employed by art historians and archaeologists to excavate the marks layered atop canonical canvases and wax tablets. And I now see palimpsests everywhere, writ large in the environment: entangled infrastructures from different eras, layered inscriptions encoding an evolving architecture parlante. In cellular antennae perched atop gargoyles, water towers abutting HVAC systems, gum stains on sidewalks, and other eruptions of deeper – even geologic – pasts.  

Wildism

Inhumane Intelligence


As I watch a roboticist kick a four-legged robot to test its ability to recalibrate and balance itself, and, later, as I listen to an AI researcher discuss how automation will remove “human error” from city management, I lament that such underwhelming, myopic, soulless endeavors constitute an ascendant epistemology. This is our new, inhumane intelligence.