Shepherds, Scouts and Experimentation

A guest post by Brett Milligan, contributing to the second Ecological Urbanism discussion hosted by Annick Labeca, Taneha Bacchin, dpr-barcelona and UrbanTick.

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Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me, Manhattan interior, 1974. Artist Joseph Beuys spent three days sequestered in a room with a wild coyote. Props included felt blankets, gloves, a walking stick and copies of the Wall Street Journal.


The Oregon Range Rider Program, 2010. A contemporary cowboy [brief media sensation Jason Cunningham] holds a receiver that monitors the location of radio-tagged wolves. Wolves have migrated into Oregon since their reintroduction to California in the 1990s.

Placed together, the two photographs above provide noteworthy points of similarity and contrast. We are presented with two versions of a modern shepherd: one working in the realm of installation and performance art, and the other within the daily practicalities of cattle ranching. The actions depicted occur at the geographically distant poles of urban space, as one is staged within an architectural interior in the center of New York City, and the other is in the open and sparsely populated terrain of eastern Oregon.

Although they were performed 36 years apart, both protagonists are seen attempting to articulate new relationships to wild dogs (coyotes and wolves) through mediated inclusion rather than extermination. They depict in-process experiments that are as much cultural as they are tests of environmental systems. Through juxtaposition they reveal assumptions and the coding of space. Beuys’ performance critiques the anthro-hegemony of urban space by reintroducing a living totem of untamed nature back into the core of the city. His shepherding of the coyote is overty didactic in its intended effect. In contrast, the range rider image effects us more through programmatic implication. The scene of Jason Cunningham riding through back-country range land with transmitter in hand shows the entrainment of technology and associated gadgetry in what might be considered the farthest reaches from cityness. We see the experimental post nature or new nature condition in which even distant wilds are meticulously monitored, managed and protected in a globalized terrain of human-hybridized ecologies. Here the territory of urban is exposed far beyond population centers in operations of resource extraction and production systems; an urbanism that makes the task of defining its ‘users’ and constituents highly complex if it is to include the plethora of non-human agents it encompasses.

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As Ecological Urbanism contends, ecology has come to the fore of spatial design disciplines as both dominant metaphor and claimed method of operation. Thus a key question should be how such ecologies are delineated, tested, and institutionally interpreted. Above all else, ecology is concerned with relationships, and is more a collection of interrelated actions and habits rather than a set of tangible things. Thus beyond the popularization and commercialization of the technics of building efficiency, how might designers more proactively effect the underlying political, economic, social, and environmental assumptions that support and set the agenda of the ecological imperative? How might we go more meta or pre-facto to guide the sustainability/ecology discussion and subsequently recalibrate design programs prior to their formulation and implementation? How might we contribute to more consistent research and spatial experimentation?

In the Ecological Urbanism (E.U.) Reader, Alexander J. Felson and Linda Pollak‘s essay Situating Urban ecological Experiments in Public Space discusses the components, challenges and needs for such experimentation within practice:

“Undertaking ecological research in cities [and the broader territories of urban systems more generally] involves new challenges: dealing with regulatory constraints, political complexity, and project boundaries in terms of adjacent land uses, connectivity, setbacks, and other aspects of zoning and private property; persuading public and private entities of the value of research; and convincing stakeholders to accept the presence of experiments. Integrating human behavior into ecological experiments requires working within and across social boundaries, inventing strategies for grasping qualitative as well as quantitative data at a nexus of human, biological, and physical activities… designers can engage the social and cultural dimensions of an urban environment, making experimentation an integral part of urban life.”

Similarly, in a recent interview, architectural historian Kazys Varnelis provided his two year post-publication comments regarding the content and themes of his book, The Infrastructural City, which can be interpreted as a push for more relevant and systemic forms of design research:

“More than virtually any other field, architects generally insist that only individuals trained (or even licensed) as architects are qualified to speak about it. This is endemic to the discipline and detrimental to it…it’s a bad thing for architecture since it prevents its deepest assumptions from being called into question…

…The book’s value in my mind [The Infrastructural City]—and what I am trying to do through my current writing—is to make people go out and uncover the deep madness underlying our society. People talk about the irrelevance of academics. Maybe that’s because we got too busy talking about obscure theory and weren’t willing to focus on the deeper issues that, frankly, it was our duty to take on.”

There’s a critique here of both practice and theory occasionally veering off course, or shutting out perceived externalities that need to be explored. In effect, The Infrastructural City operates in ways similar to Buey’s installation with the coyote in that the text is a proactive critique used to steer, or shepard the current discussion surrounding urbanism and ecology through a substantial reframing of content and analysis.

So how do we as designers go about utilizing proactive methods that allow for more, regular experimentation and a shepherding of the dialogue? There are likely multiple avenues. But like urban ecologists, we value engagement with the real. We value field work and traction with the ground; an immersion within the open systems of study rather than static and closed conjecture from within an isolated lab. As any experienced ecologist will likely divulge, surprise rather than sustained predictability is the general rule of most ecologies, and therefor they should be reassessed and explored frequently.

This type of exploration does not imply a particular leaning towards design/build practices, but rather practices requiring minimal investment, yet high impact per calorie spent to facilitate the testing of privileged ecologies more regularly (a different sort of efficiency). We need more fast twitch practices that use embodied experience, low-fi strategies and effective cut and paste interventions to more regularly probe the power dynamics and structuring codes of urban space, rather than letting them be defined by someone else. More agile practices that synthesize activism and spatial intervention via meme, or viral-like happenings to counter the prevailing deep madness Kazys describes. Such interventions will not happen only through predefined client-based commissions or academic experimentation. We also need something in between – something faster and more responsive. How do we initiate the catalytic, the quick, and the openly unprescribed to more effectively guide and formulate urban ecologies and the customary capital intensive built work that will likely follow it?

Shepherding seems to have two general connotations: that of guiding animals and religious congregations. We don’t mean to imply the latter. We are applying the term here in a more broad sense of proactive and informed guidance in relation to the ecological narrative in the spatial design arena. And like the animal or herder-based aspect of the definition, it implies a thorough reading and embodied engagement with real and everyday space to assess the problems and opportunities that it contains. Thus perhaps another, less loaded (and non-preachy) connotation for such pre-facto design practices is that of the scout:

verb: explore, often with the goal of finding something or somebody; noun: someone who can find paths through unexplored territory; lookout: a person employed to keep watch for some anticipated event.

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Brett Milligan is a practitioner, researcher, and educator and in the allied disciplines of landscape architecture and urbanism. He is the principal of the collaborative research practice of FAD free association design as well as a design instructor at The University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts, and formerly The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Brett’s research operates in the shared territories of urbanism, biotic infrastructure, applied ecology, and alternative modes of design practice.

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