SEA Conference, 2020

Post Institution

The annual conference at SEA this year was structured around the idea of Post-Institution. The focus of the conference was to interrogate the changing conditions of pedagogy across the world, particularly as seen in the rise of auto-didacts and the interesting challenge they pose to the idea of pedagogic institutions -for the purpose of the conference it was kept closer to architectural institutions. Simply put, the argument that the conference set out to open was, if traditionally institutions were seen as places where knowledge was imparted and students were seen as receiver of such knowledge then, with the increasing access of information via the internet -and a whole ecology of internet of things- this relationship structured around the provider and receiver of knowledge enshrined in institutions is under strain. This strained relationship is equally pushing institutions to change, adapt, morph or even mutate into new models of learning today.
The conference opened these questions through four panel discussions. Each of the panels were anchored by two internal faculties of the School of Environment and Architecture and two invited panelists from across the world. The panels were as follows
Emerging questions for the pedagogy of inhabitation: Gautam Bhan, Shreyank Khemalapure, Vastavikta Bhagat and Vishwanath Kashikar
Emerging questions for the pedagogy of inhabitation: Continuous Archives of Nimble Practices

The first panel titled Emerging Questions for the pedagogy of Inhabitation focused on three interrelated questions: How to teach incrementality? How to bring incremental thinking in architectural practice? How to situate architectural practice in the changing urban landscapes? To these questions, the responses each of the panelists can be summarised as follows:

1. Architectural practice is situated in a larger set of practices: Gautam Bhan argued that architects must understand that their practice will always be located in a larger set of practices that produce the urban conditions: their practice also contributes in the production of the urban conditions.

2. Institutions as a location for continuous archives: Architectural institutions should study and put together a continuous and growing archive of urban practices that engage with the everyday and incremental making of the city. One such example is the repair and retrofit studio at SEA. These archives can then become the basis for new conceptualization for cities.

3. Incrementality as the framework for urbanization itself: Incrementality should be seen not only as a strategy for housing but as a conceptual framework for urbanization in general. Considering that cities, large infrastructure projects, mass housing projects, slums, and planned neighborhoods are all incrementally undertaken and built, this proposition to look at urbanization generally as an incremental process only makes sense.

4. Incrementality as a form for practice: For Vishwanath Kashikar, incrementality should be seen as a method to structure an architectural practice. Can architectural practices be structured incrementally? Can their structures become nimble enough to undertake projects that can accommodate  non-formal and low-budget works, etc.

5. Incrementality as a form for pedagogy: Architectural institutions should reconsider their current structures in order to make space for incremental explorations and learnings of student

Visual Culture and Architectural Pedagogy: Visceral and Phenomenological Engagement with Visual Culture

1. Drawing as a verb: Drawing in architecture often can get caught up in the representational dead-lock. This means that there is nothing more to the drawing or the image of an architectural work (or image as an architectural work) beyond what appears in the image. For example, a beautiful set of drawings may not have much to say beyond the fact that their technique of drawing is beautiful. One of the ways to get around this problem is to ask the question of agency of drawing at two levels: 1) what was the process or iterations that the author of the drawing /image undertook to arrive at the final image. 2) What does the drawing do? What is the argument in the drawing? In short to consider drawing as a verb -an action, a process, an actor, a projector. 

2. Shifting notions of visual culture from representational to relational: Moving away from the limitations of thinking in terms of drawing or image in architecture, the panel also made a case to engage instead with the emerging space of contemporary visual culture. Even in this case, what the panel is asking us is not to consider literal representations of things and events but to open up the relational space of the visual culture that we inhabit, that shapes our thinking, our actions and our practices.  

3. Critical Spatial Practice: Ya'ara Gil-Glazer argued that, it is not simply enough to identify the sphere of visual culture that has come to dominate our times and our lives, but also to then re-draw new tools and practices that enable us to critically engage with not only the space of visual culture but also with contemporary spatialities -the spatial differences it brings produces, the politics of spatial production and differentiation, the embedded and hidden cultural and social hegemonies, and so on.  

4. Immersive experience of psycho-social spatialities: Sanchayan Ghosh urged to make room for expanding the idea of visual culture from an ecology of circulation of images to a visceral and carnal engagement with the material space -by redrawing the visual field into the material space.

These four ideas push architects to be spatial practitioners in ways that enables them to even move beyond the stronghold of cartographic and orthographic modes of thinking about space as a measurable or compartmentalised entity.

Visual Culture and Architectural Pedagogy: Anuj Daga, Apurva Talpade, Niall Hobhouse, Sanchayan Ghosh and Ya'ara Gil-Glazer

Pedagogy in the Times of  Digital / DIY / New Media Ecologies: Bhavleen Narula, Dipti Bhaindarkar, Dushyant Asher and Kush Patel

Pedagogy in the Times of  Digital / DIY / New Media Ecologies: Sensing and Hacking Digital Infrastructures 

Everyday hack in institutional processes: One of the things that the digital ecology has enabled is to introduce new tools in the established institutional frameworks and processes. For example a smart-phone and PDF in the otherwise paper heavy processes and transactions. One can now click photos of paper, take screenshots of messages and conversations as set of reminders and records, one can circulate documents in an instance from one person to another, one institution to another, and so on. This introduction of unforeseen tools in the analog institutional processes produce their own complexities and practices which may or may not be compatible with one another. Yet, this entangled nature of the analog frameworks and digital tools bring forward the rhizomatic and networked forms of institutions. 

1. Biography of the instructor: How to blur the boundaries between the didact and the auto-didact, between the teacher and student, between the academic and the non-academic? This is another set of questions that the digital infrastructure pose for spatial pedagogy. One of the ways to respond is to use the digital as the site of intervention, of resistance, of disent, of reconfiguration of the infrastructure of digital pedagogy -building new archives with multiple voices, temporal and spatial actions to mend digital divides, reconstituting or inversing the logic of online learning courses from sites of dispensing knowledge to sites of resistance and dissent and so on.

2. Hack as a process and methodology to make do with your own locational conditions: One of the ways in which computational or digital architecture is thought about in India is to look at it as an impoverished field. The reason cited for this way of thinking has always been a lack of advanced infrastructure and tools that the near and far west and near and far east enjoy. Another narrative is to consider marrying computational tools to local craft techniques. What gets missed out in both these narratives is the focus on the questions and vectors that can be developed with respect to the computational architecture itself, from wherever one is located. One of the ideas that this panel proposes is to think about the idea of hacking as a method to ask new questions. They ask us not so much to fall back on extreme craft nor be limited by infrastructure, but to consider new questions about the computational tools and apparatuses available at hand.

3. Digital ecology as an extension of the self: With the advent of the social media, big data, digital surveillance systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the human self gets re-presented, re-configured by various institutions, organizations and even people to fit in their framework. For instance in Object-Oriented Programming everything and every person is an abstract index with a list of attributes -gender, age, job, family, facial scan, fingerprint and so on and nothing more. This is interconnected with the extended logistical and distribution networks of big warehouses and personal wishlists and personal recommendations -the amazon fulfillment centers, alibaba sorting centers (one wonders what might have happened to the several thousand employees after the state hunt for Jack Ma?), big baskets, flipkart, and several others are assimilating on the peripheries of cities and creating a new urban condition. Yet at the same time, as a retroactive effect, the digital ecology also opens the space for the radicalization of small scale and personal scale of mass-customized productions -the 3d printed pistol, rocket parts, toys, architectural models, and so on are representative of this. Can this idea of the personal scale of production or a kitchen scale of production become an engaging site for material and architectural explorations? Can we take the cooking analogy to thinking at the conceptual, spatial and scalar levels of architectural thinking and practice?
Thinking through Temporalities and Care in Habitation: Visceral Engagement with Ecology

1. Shift From vernacular to co-habitation with non-human species.: Environmental discussions particularly pertaining to the built environment were anchored in the mid 20th century on the questions of responding to regional climatic conditions, which were assumed to be more or less constant and cyclical in nature. Soon, this focus was shifted under the influence of new technocratic structures to the measuring of the performance of the building with respect to the environment it inhabits, resources it consumes in its process and in its everyday functioning, and so on. Here too, the climate was seen as a consistent and stable phenomenon to which the built environment had to respond. Today, when the climate patterns do not appear consistent any more, when this fluxy situations are causing recurring climate related calamities in cities it is no longer possible for climatic studies of the built-environment to consider climate as a consistent phenomenon -hurricanes, thunderstorms, floods, landslides, among other things have proven capable of putting biggest of the cities to halt. Not only that this fluxy nature of climate and ecological phenomena have also posed severe problem for the climate discussion in architecture and urbanization to reconsider the human centric discussions of comfort and well being of humans, to extend the framework of care to all kinds of non-human or more-than-human entities around.

2. Love as the spring of all forms:  For Mriganka Madhukaillya, the world and the universe is always in a constant flux. Yet each flux seems to have a duration -emergence, peak stability, and decay; until another emergence takes over to create another duration of flux. Like the agricultural turn, the industrial turn, computational turn and so on. Each moment of new flux can be seen as moments of disruptions, breakdowns and failures of systems. Each breakdown and disruption opening a new branch of stream, of new possibilities. Such a phenomenon can also be seen in the turbulent, unpredictable and course shifting behaviour of massive rivers and deltas. Nothing appears to be stable in deltas. In order to make sense of such conditions, one needs to give up on the modern hegemony of cartography in understanding ecological systems. One needs to look at other forms of cognitions, other forms of knowledge systems -indigenous epistemologies, artistic engagements, among others. This means, to keep ecological discussions open to all kinds of things, ideas, groups, knowledge systems, ecological entities, other species and so on. This would mean to extend and share a radical desire or radical love with all things in the world. To see love (philos) as the root, the spring of all forms in the universe: ‘nothing distinguishes oneself or a group, ontologically from a crystal, plant or an animal, or order of the world. We are drifting together towards a noise in the black depth of the universe.’ This shift to indidenous and multiple epistemologies, artistic engagements, to various ecological entities would also mean that perhaps ecological discussions should start from building new pedagogic systems not only from multiple epistemologies but also from from ecological entities like forests, rivers, alchemy and consider them as the model for the new world.

3. Visceral engagement with Swamp and the capacities of art to destabilize logics of science: In the similar vein Gediminas Urbonas turns to swamps or the world as the ‘critical zone’ or even as the ‘interface of Gaya’. If forests are the lungs, then swamps are like kidneys of the planet. Gediminas invites us to reconsider our current pedagogic basis of cities and architecture, which are embedded in a history of draining the swamps rather than working with and around them. The long human history of draining swamps can also be considered in many ways draining a whole bunch of indigenous epistemologies that worked together with the swamp as an important part of the habitat. To counter this history, Gediminas proposes to consider the idea swamp as an ontological model. Just as it is difficult to distinguish land from water, and if we push the idea further, algae from land and water in a swamp, can pedagogy of space, cities and architecture embrace a non-binary model of artistic and scientific engagement with the world? As a counter to the modernist epistemology, Gediminas proposes the idea of an amphibian pedagogy -which cannot be classified neatly into a category. This would call for an engagement with ecology through sensory experiences:listening, smelling, touching, dipping feet and hands in the swamp,  etc. - a form of reengaging with the world which relies on visceral experiences as much as on sensual experiences. Here, Gediminas, like Mringank, calls for not only a form of pedagogy based on other forms of knowledge, but also a form of making the world together or sympoietics.

Thinking through Temporalities and Care in Habitation: Gediminas Urbonas, Mriganka Madhukaillya, Rohit Mujumdar and Sabaa Giradkar
Shared tendency in the four panels: Empiricism without  Reductionism. Or, blurring the boundaries between artistic and the scientific.

In the pre-pandemic world, the dominant method of ‘new’ experience was ‘seeing closely’. A method that was popularly mobilised across social sciences, gender studies, anthropology, ethnography and urban studies. This method has produced some of the most ground breaking scholarly contributions to these disciplines. The method asks its practitioners to get a closer and deeper ‘look’ at an event or a thing, to read things that are not visible from a distance. This way one can follow actors and their background networks and unravel or lay bare the workings of the event, thing or a phenomenon. One of the crucial aspects of this exercise is the possibility of being located in ‘field’ to illustrate a first-hand record of the event and its background readings. This possibility is seriously severed by the pandemic, unless one is willing to risk lives like frontline workers. This means that it might be ‘physically’ difficult to look closely at things and events. This also means that we need to consider new avenues and methods of getting closer to things. Yes, it is still possible to read things closely through secondary sources and construct narratives of events. Or, to phone a friend and get a sense of the networks and constellations at play. Or, to simply keep mining the google search to find patterns etc. Yet, at the same time, this momentary severing of the possibilities of ‘field’ experience also opens up the question of distance in a different sense. How do we ‘feel’ closer to events and things in the severing of certain kinds of physical experience of the field? How do we feel the tragedies of the pandemic? How do we feel closer to places and events that are both near and far? While we closely saw things in the pre-pandemic world, can we feel things today from afar?

Arts and artistic practices is a potent avenue, a universe, that might offer possible methods and models to approach things indirectly and even from a distance -from a few meters apart to the edge of the universe. For the navigators of the post-institutional space (all of us), historically and ever more pressingly today, knowing the world by experiencing things closely,  while not reducing it to a set of appearances and measures will play the most crucial guide in our navigation through the new world. Yet, in order to develop methods and frameworks to navigate this condition that we are thrown into, we will have to chart new courses, new projections, finding peers near and far, joining hands from a distance, departing at some moments, and converging back at some other moments. 

All the modes of engagement suggested by the panelists of the symposium: build a continuous archive of multiple local knowledge; mobilize bodily and spatially immersive methods of engaging with not only visual culture but spatial culture; viscerally engage with forest, mountains, rivers and swamps; develop artistic and amphibian modes of engaging with the world; will certainly have to be steered and reframed in the conditions imposed by the pandemic. Who knows, the pandemic may fade away sooner or it may last for some time. But that should not stop from searching for new modes of engaging with the world.

The pandemic, more than even climate crisis narratives, has sounded once again the presence and the agency of things, agency of chance and accidents, agency of non-calculable aspects, in the shaping of our world. This is an interesting challenge for design education, particularly architectural education which has relied extensively on  stable forms of knowledge for too long.