How can we address the core issues of establishing a viable planetarity through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic and its urban realities?
Strelka Institute’s The Terraforming program is an interdisciplinary design research think-tank convened to preemptively address issues of planetary urbanism. The name refers to the need to fundamentally transform Earth’s cities, technologies, and ecosystems to ensure that the planet will be capable of supporting Earth-like life. Artificiality, astronomy, and automation form the basis of that alternative planetarity. With the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, what began as speculative has become real-time. We are in “reality catches up” mode.
We see this moment less as a “state of exception” than exposing multiple pre-existing conditions. We are all witnessing a massive experiment in comparative governance with the virus as the control variable. The results speak for themselves.
The rapid shift to urban lockdown and its cultures of quarantine, encapsulation, remoteness, virtuality, denial, and death have accelerated the urgency of the questions posed, which is why we are opening the project to new contributors.
For better or worse, this moment is a revenge of the real. As The Terraforming Program Director Benjamin H. Bratton writes, “the global contagion and the varied responses by different societies have exposed ideologies and traditions as ineffective, fraudulent, and suicidal. What is required is less a new narrative or a new art than acceptance of how the rapid intrusion of an indifferent reality can make symbolic resistance futile. The pre-existing conditions now exposed clarify the need for a geopolitics based not on self-undermining prisoner’s dilemma tactics in the face of common risks, but on a deliberate plan for the coordination of the planet we occupy and make and re-make over again. Otherwise, this moment really will be a permanent emergency.”
Call for papers/projects
The Revenge of the Real is an open call for papers, projects, and research related to these urgent topics and how they are now and will continue to affect urban life, systems, and futures. This joint initiative with Strelka Mag will feature ideas and projects that are surprising, pragmatic, unconventional, and honest—even if productively controversial. We presume that the work that most directly confronts the implications today is full of risk.
These themes below are prompts, not instructions or categories for potential submission. We invite departures from these starting points.
Epidemiological View of Society
The pandemic has mainstreamed a different understanding of an individual organism as a medium of transmission—from ideas to viruses—and is defined by who/what each is connected to and disconnected from. What are the genres, variants, potentials, and contradictions of epidemiological epistemologies and techniques?
The renewed role of model simulations to map, plan, and intervene in complex biological and technical systems, including urban cultures, is at the fore. What are the critical similarities and differences between design models and scientific and financial simulations? How can the historical philosophy of simulation inform the integrity and enforceability of governing simulations?
The critical role of ubiquitous testing and tracking to understand the scope of the pandemic has altered how we evaluate sensing and indexing as political technologies. If conventional framings from both smart city and anti-surveillance discourses are inadequate, then what are the more productive and nuanced vocabularies needed to identify, map, evaluate, and compose broadly effective and appropriate approaches?
As cities go on lockdown, automated urban platforms have become an emergency public sphere. Their successes suggest that we should see these systems not as a fragile virtual and supplemental layer, but rather as an essential social fabric. If so, how does this clarify and complicate issues of economics and equity? What are the longer-term implications for urban planning, zoning, and regulation?
As we uncomfortably adapt to psychogeographies of isolation, we learn new vocabularies, activities, and thresholds of calm and distress. “Quarantine” means a kind of suspended indeterminate status. It is a limbo. What has changed and what will remain changed for the foreseeable future? What counts as essential industries, services, cultures, connections? Will simulations of the outside world of the immediate past suffice for longer than we realize?
Adaptation is also right at hand. We are remaking ourselves in relation to closures and openings around us. By embracing the artificiality of new masks and new skins, it may be possible to compose different urban interfaces directly. How have changes in a now “contactless” habitation, the micropolitics of the handshake and embrace, and dramatic shifts in urban biometrics made way for the rapid artificial evolution of the urban creatures who eventually emerge from their quarantine metamorphosis?
The challenges of climate change pose a similar confrontation with the artificial reality of our planetary condition as its starting point. Refusal to engage and embrace that artificiality, on behalf of a chastened return to “nature,” has led to catastrophic denial and neglect. How might terms like “geoengineering” be redefined to imply planetary-scale design effects, not just specific technological interventions?
Greener Newer Deals
Planning needs to go beyond national works programs led by environmentalist traditions, and toward a renewed global focus on research, technology, economics, mobilization, and enforcement. How can planning for systemic maintenance and rationalization, negative emissions carbon chains, longer-term energy and waste cycles, frozen time, and/or lost and returned debts organize an infrastructural economics to meet the moment?
At stake ultimately is how “we” are able to compose our habitation of this planetary perch, including who and what is enrolled in the composition. Planetarity itself has come into focus not only through reimagining cosmopolitanism, but also in the inhuman orbital perspectives of astronomic reckoning. How are the thresholds of what is and isn’t intractable about our species’ embedding in and on Earth a way of marking the scope of potential transformation?
The Revenge of the Real open call is for essays, projects, and research.
Submit your proposal by sending an abstract (up to 250 words) and a brief bio by April 30 to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Submissions will be reviewed and selected on a rolling basis until the deadline. Selected participants will receive an honorarium of €150 for their submitted pieces.
For a deeper dive into The Terraforming project, see the following articles, books, and videos by Program Director Benjamin H. Bratton:
“18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism”—an essay written on March 25, 2020, addressing the pandemic and how research themes of The Terraforming program relate to the crisis and the responses.
The Terraforming book written in August 2019, that serves as the hypothesis and brief for the program’s research, published by Strelka Press and made available for free download in ePub format as part of The Revenge of the Real Special Project.
The Terraforming Lectures—Bratton’s six seminar lectures and discussions from the first week of the program in February 2020. Each lecture explores in detail chapters of The Terraforming book.
Program Launch—video from August 2019 presentation announcing The Terraforming program, and introducing its research themes and faculty.
theterraforming.strelka.com—The program portal with information on faculty, researchers, projects, and schedules.
Cover image courtesy of Danielle Baskin / Resting Risk Face