materiality of the invisible

Yesterday I had the great honor to open a remarkable exhibition of artworks at the Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht.

multiform institute for fine art, design and reflection

Curators: Lex ter Braak, Director of Van Eyck and Huib Haye van der Werf, Head of Artistic Program. The exhibition runs through The Van Eyck Academie, Marres, and Bureau Europe in Maastricht.

I have no doubt that this is one of the most sophisticated explorations I have encountered of what I call the archaeological imagination. Stunning!

I have expanded the talk I gave at the opening – and I am still hardly doing justice to this gathering of artists, works, ideas, provocations … and so much more. Here is the slide deck.


Sema Bekirovic – Ovid’s Pygmalion — cold plaster coming alive through the touch of a warm hand

RAAAF – models in a basement of WWII bunkers

Fernando Sánchez Castillo – Franco’s yacht

Daniel Silver – we rework, revive, reinvent, remediate ancient monumental forms

car collection – connoisseurship and archaeology

This is one of a series of comments on the 8th biennial symposium “Connoisseurship and the Collectible Car” held at the Revs Institute for Automotive Research in Naples, Florida in March 2015. [Link]

The symposia at the Revs Institute bring together people passionate about collecting cars, passionate about thinking deeply around questions of conservation and restoration, historical significance, value and attraction, how to keep these machines running. And why this matters to us all.

This year I’m joining a wonderful group of faculty to facilitate the conversations among the 60 collectors here with us in Naples – restoration experts Eddie Berrisford and Paul Russell, trends analyst Jonathan Chavez, car connoisseur, artist, Revs founder Miles Collier, conservator Malcolm Collum (Smithsonian), chemical engineer Owen Falk (Stanford), auto aficionado and Revs VP Scott George, President of Historic Vehicle Association Mark Gessler, classic car collector and expert David Gooding, champion to the car collector community McKeel Hagerty, media strategist and publisher John Lavine (Northwestern), collector enthusiast, writer and publisher Keith Martin, information designer Peter Mangiafico (Stanford), motor sports enthusiast Nick Mason, motor racing journalist Doug Nye, information scientist Bob Schwarzwalder (Stanford), designer Peter Stevens, auto enthusiast and collector car market specialist David Swig.


What’s on the agenda?

As Mark Gessler has put it, we’re seeing car collecting evolve from hobby to heritage. Old cars are being taken more seriously than ever.

And with this comes more and more sophistication regarding key questions of what cars to collect, why and how.

This year the symposium has flagged legacy as its theme. “Legacy” is about what’s left over from the past and what to do with it. This is more neutral concept, with more valency, than “heritage”, and instantly raises questions of value – personal, cultural, social, monetary, residing in the object, in what it represents, in how we see an artifact, in what it says to us. Questions of why we should be bothered about old things.

The symposia promote connoisseurship as a means of dealing with automotive heritage or legacy. This has really got me thinking. As an archaeologist of the ancient Greek world I was trained as a connoisseur – over nearly ten years becoming intimately familiar with artworks made in Corinth between about 720 and 600 BC, through museum-based research, hands-on work in ceramics, and through technical studies.

I was bothered by how connoisseurship, which developed out of the world of the eighteenth-century antiquary, had come to get a bad name, had come to be associated with esoteric high-cultural taste and interest, not open to the majority of people but quite monopolized by experts. Bernard Berenson, for example, revolutionized the art history of Renaissance painting by his connoisseurship, but became too closely connected with collectors who knew that his opinion of a painting could enormously increase (or decrease), its value on the market. And he took a 5% cut of any advised sale or purchase.

I dealt with connoisseurship of Greek art in my book “Classical Archaeology of Greece” [Link] – showing how we truly need deep knowledge of things like artworks. We need experts in art, material culture, and design history who can act as honest brokers, offering judgement of value (of all kinds) rooted in substantiated expertise. This is connoisseurship:

  • deep knowledge of things
  • rooted in close attention to making, design, style
  • bringing together technical knowledge, social and cultural context, interpretation and analysis of style and form
  • involving close reading of the artifact as a document informing us of its makers, consumers, of its times.

So I am offering a couple of talks to explore what this might mean for the car collector.

The first is a one-hour version of my class and forthcoming book about design – I talk through a collection of items, showing how things are always more than objects.

The second is an argument that we’re all archaeologists – working on what remains.

Here are some points for the car collector:

  • the car is always an assemblage – not just an object, but a bundle of stories, paperwork, contexts, as well as parts
  • think less of the dates of cars and more of archaeological time — duration, encounter, presence, care
  • a living past requires triage, intervention, engagement, mobilization – animation
  • collecting the past is about choices made for the future
  • rise to the challenge of the archive — it’s who we are and it’s always “we”

The world of the car collector, as with the world of the automobile, is no longer just about cars – because the automobile is a mode of modern experience, a way of thinking about things, it’s a lens through which to view our world – and in sharp focus.



Egyptian New Kingdom sculpture and a gravity/vacuum fuel pump for a pre-war Bentley – both appearing in my talk “Ten Things – how and why the legacies of the past matter so much”

Here are the slides for my talk “We’re all archaeologists now – how and why every car collector should embrace their inner archaeological self”

“We’re all archaeologists” – Revs Symposium 2015 from Slideshare

And here are Sara Heppner-Waldston’s superb graphic captures of what I have to say:



ruins – thoughts on the aesthetic

An exhibition currently at the Tate in London is exploring British images of ruin since the 18th century.

Ruin Lust, an exhibition at Tate Britain from 4 March 2014, offers a guide to the mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art from the seventeenth century to the present day. The exhibition is the widest-ranging on the subject to date and includes over 100 works by artists such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, John Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Rachel Whiteread and Tacita Dean.




Turner’s Tintern Abbey, 1794

This is meant to be a topical exhibition. Contemporary art abounds in work dealing with material decay, persistent memory, fragmentary remains, archival traces. Pictures of ruins, photographs mainly, are to be found in quantity on all the photo sharing websites. This archaeological genre has never been more popular (Paul Mullins offers an excellent and nuanced commentary on his blog – [Link])

But do such images sometimes turn the manifestation of urban, economic and political failure into images of beauty for easy contemplation, effacing social injustice and suffering? Are processes of decay neutralized by being made into the subject of aesthetic pleasure?

Here’s Brian Dillon, curator of the show at the Tate, in the Guardian in February 2012 –

An obsession with ruins can risk a fall into mere sentiment or nostalgia: ruin lust was already a cliché in the 18th century, and its periodic revivals may put one in mind of Gilbert and Sullivan: “There’s a fascination frantic / In a ruin that’s romantic.” The great interest in the remarkable images of decayed Detroit – in the photographs, for example, of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, on show at the Wilmotte Gallery in London from this week – is easily understandable but seems oddly detached from analyses of the political forces that brought the city of Detroit to its present sorry pass. It may be that as a cultural touchstone the idea of ruin needs to slump into the undergrowth again. But the history of ruin aesthetics tells us that it would likely resurface in time, charged again with artistic and political energy, and we’d find ourselves looking once more at blasted or burned cities with a visionary or melancholy eye, just as Rose Macaulay did in 1941, ambiguously lamenting a bombed-out house where “the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky”.


Recent similar commentary comes in the New York Times –[Link] and the Huffington Post – [Link]

The Wikipedia entry for “Ruins photography” expresses it as follows –

“Ruins photography aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.”


This is a critique of “aesthetics”, in the sense of treating and representing something, a ruin, aesthetically. Assumed is a distinction between superficial and popularly appealing beauty (of the photographs), and a deeper truth that is being occluded (typically conceived to involve the people who are the subject of ruin). Aesthetics here means to do with the ways things seem and are represented, and not least by artists.

The exhibition offers enough diversity to compromise this easy opposition of illusion and reality, the utility of scientific knowledge and the indulgences of pleasure. This is an old and recurring line of critique, and not just of photographs. Many since Plato have wished to banish the artist and what are conceived as their superficial aesthetic efforts, merely illustrative secondary representations, at best a popular entertainment, from the state of the philosopher King who alone can guarantee access to the truth of reality.

And these are images of places that are often culturally and historically charged. Turner’s ruins are paradigms of the picturesque. Other ruins are historical sites where things have happened, for better or worse. Ruins may be valued more as tourist attractions and as heritage icons than as the sources of history. Tintern Abbey becomes picturesque ruin, the realities of the dissolution of the church in the sixteenth century forgotten. So a related line of criticism pits heritage, the reception of the past rooted in contemporary interest, against history itself, the truth of what actually happened (Lowenthal 1996 and many after).

Let me share here an edited version of a comment I made recently to a paper in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (“Imaging modern decay: the aesthetics of ruin photography” by Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen), arguing that photography can witness the materiality of things in ruin, avoiding this ideology of the aesthetic (a powerful argument given the likes of Olsen 2010 and fieldwork in the abandoned Soviet mining town of Pyramiden – also the Ruin Memories Project). (References are at the end.)

Let me raise some questions about this notion of the aesthetic that underlies this debate.

The key is first to detach aesthetics from a sole association with the arts. Let’s revert to an older definition of the aesthetic – as concerned with sensation and perception, where sensation is about emotional engagement and subjective evaluation, and perception is cognitive, involving objective ascertainment (Welsch 1996). Think, sense, feel, evaluate: these are the key aspects of human experience (Shanks 1992; Svabo and Shanks 2014).

Kant convincingly showed in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1999), under the concept of the transcendental aesthetic, that aesthetic elements are foundational for knowledge: only in space and time, that is through experience and intuition, can objects first be given to us. Nietzsche went further in holding that reality is wholly aesthetic in character — a construct which we produce, like artists with fictional means, through forms of imagination, intuition, projections, phantasms, pictures, and so on. Cognition is metaphorical in that there is no direct engagement with reality: the aesthetic is here associated with our fundamental separation from a reality which always must in part withhold itself, remaining ineffable (Harman 2013, Witmore 2014). Even Hume recognized the essential role that the conjectural imagination plays in making up for a reality that must always remain somehow distant. We create forms of orientation (the aesthetic) that, at best, need to be as movable and elastically constituted as a reality that itself is fluid and changeable. This constructed, impermanent, flexible character of knowledge is now a commonplace in the philosophy and history of science.

things themselves

Aesthetics is well conceived as a branch of epistemology (how we come to know the past), and ontology (concerning the character of the past we wish to come to know), both relating to human experience. The debate about just what things are and how we apprehend them is an iterative return to what has concerned so many for so long (consider the recent works from Ian Bogost, Graham Harman and Tim Morton; as well as archaeological efforts in Olsen et al 2012). Herakleitos, in the very earliest days of occidental philosophy, saw that he could never plunge his hand into the same river twice, and realized that there is no fundament whose truth can be revealed or concealed, that we must only work with the oblique signs transmitted to us not directly through our senses but through an independent medium — and for Herkleitos this was god’s inspired representative.

And aestheticization, in this broad sense of the scope of human experience, is something we have grown to know well everyday in modernity. It is captured in the notion of the experience economy, where we purchase not so much goods anymore as packages of designed experiences. The growth of the digital makes the real sometimes seem barely real, as experiences and relationships slip so easily across face-to-face and mediated encounters. And the power of industrial design, working on new materials and technologies, makes reality seem all the more mutable and malleable, subject to the aesthetic.

So there are five key components to this extended concept of the aesthetic:

  • experience — by which I mean cognition, perception, evaluation
  • poetics and “cosmetics” – pertaining to construction and arrangement (from the Greek kosmos) — experience works with and upon reality in making it what it is to us through the forms of the imagination, in design and making
  • specificity in time and space — our experiences, engagements with things, are always located temporally and spatially
  • iteration — temporal and spatial specificity means that an experience may be revisited, but never exactly reproduced
  • reality always withholds something — because cognition and perception, the situatedness of human experience, can never encompass all its qualities.

As an archaeologist I too have realized the allure of ruin. From the beginning of my career as site photographer, finds photographer, finds artist and site surveyor, I have dealt in the representation of archaeological ruin, working on what remains. I enjoy my persona as archaeographer – experimenting in photo work with archaeological sites and things. So let me return now to the question of how we pursue imagery and photography (of ruins) under this expanded notion of the aesthetic.

The aesthetic and its association with media and representation. First, and as a premise, I suggest that the very notion of medium is undermined. No longer is medium to be solely conceived as material form and associated discursive and institutional agencies (such as TV, Movies, or Photography — comprising light sensitive chemicals, a certain instrumentality, the photographic image produced and distributed by the press, amateur and professional photography and their discourses, all serviced by corporate interests, and so on). Rather than medium we should think of mode of engagement (Shanks 2007), where photography is an architecture of arrangement of viewer, viewed, instrument, audience, the camera (a windowed room), and agencies of “inscription” (“pencils of nature” (or just graphite), chemicals and/or sensors) (Shanks and Svabo 2013).

Free ourselves from the simple notion that photography is primarily about photographs and things get very interesting indeed. Photography is about how we work with what remains. This is precisely how I have suggested we should conceive of archaeology itself (1992, 2012).

Setting up the camera and tripod, or easel, before the ruin, in order to capture the image. As well as architectures of arrangement (the cosmetic component, if you like), this notion of the aesthetic also draws attention to poetics — construction, making an image, delivery and consumption (Shanks 1992, Part 4; Shanks 1997a). I have suggested that a paradigm of performance is required to understand this media work that is the photography of ruin.

Performance? We may conceive performance as a doing and a thing done, involving dramaturgy (organizing the protagonists and the action), scenography (the architectures of arrangement, mise-en-scène, location, including theatre), and mediation/documentation/reception (scripting (or not), record and aftermath). It is in site specific performance, a genre of contemporary art (Kaye 2000, Pearson 2010) that I have found considerable enlightenment of this aesthetic. Mike Pearson and I, working with members of arts company Brith Gof, have offered a series of works and reflections under the designation “theatre/archaeology” — rearticulations of fragments of the past as real-time event (Pearson and Shanks 1996, 2001, 2013; Pearson 2007, 2010; McLucas 2000). Much use has been made of photo work, though the photographs themselves, a fortiori, have been very much part of this blurred genre. Rather than standing alone as documents or illustrations, we have used, repurposed photo work as a means of exploring an aesthetic of located, time-bound engagement with (im)material traces in nomadic (after Serres) and paratactical (after Adorno) experience (Svabo and Shanks 2014, Pearson and Shanks 2014; Shanks 2012).

What does this mobilization of photography (of ruin) in theatre/archaeology look like? Sometimes in Artaud mode, sometimes Grotowski or Brecht (Shanks 2012), offering only temporary hold, interrupting and intervening as things slip away, theatre/archaeology offers a constellation of performance practices (things and things done) dealing with encounter, gathering and transformation — a guided tour of a ruin, a forensic portfolio, a temporary on-site installation, a deep chorographical map, the museological experience of an animated archive in the online world Second Life … (for examples and discussion see Pearson and Shanks 2001, 2013,,

Perhaps ironically, given the separation of this expanded concept of aesthetics from a lonely association with the arts, it is in romantic, modern and contemporary art, rather than academic philosophy, that I have found the most stimulating explorations of this located and material engagement with the world of things. Tim Morton (2011 for example) is correct, I believe, in identifying the importance of what can certainly be called a non-anthropocentric ontology in the works of European Romanticism (Shanks 1995; the Romantic sublime of “all that is solid melts into air”, for example, or Wordsworth’s “life of things” Shanks 2012: 21-25). Modernist painting broke with naturalist conventions in favor of an increasing focus upon the materiality, the “reality” of the painterly surface, and since the 1960s mixed media and time-based art work has deeply questioned the ontology of the art object and its relationship to human experience. I believe this is why there has been a growing interest in the convergence between contemporary fine arts and an archaeological sensibility (for example, Russell and Cochrane 2013).

Hal Foster marked out the expanded aesthetic of fine art in his Return of the Real (1996), but for the most sophisticated and consistent address to the aesthetic in relation to arts practice we should look to critical theorist Theodor Adorno. Steeped in post-Kantian aesthetics, a musician and witness to the horrors of the aetheticization of politics in the twentieth century, Adorno articulated a negative dialectics, a fluid aesthetics of non-identity (1973, 1984) — “the realisation that there is no essence to things; it is the secret that their identity is fabricated piecemeal from alien forms. At the root of an artifact is the dissension of other things, disparity (Foucault 1986: 78-9). This is its life, its being in the world” (Shanks 1998: 42).

Adorno understood arts practice and its dilemmas — Offer ideology critique? Witness the ineffable? Offer an avant-garde vision that must remain fundamentally incomprehensible? With Walter Benjamin, he struggled with this political challenge of when and how to intervene. This question, for me, is one of (political) representation. So I end with the vital difference between illustration and representation (Shanks 2012). Both are aspects of rhetoric, quite a component of the aesthetic. We might retain the word illustration for a secondary support of an argument, through exemplification in image or description. Representation, however, is best reserved for advocacy, the construction of argument for a case, a person, a community, the arrangement of evidences and witness statements, the delivery, the re-presentation to an audience, the people in assembly, and all rooted in the delicate shifting relationship between reality, experience, documentation and what we make of them. Representation is, in this sense, precisely an engagement and interactive performance. And I read in both Benjamin and Adorno the conviction that technical progress (in photo work, in illustration, in representation) is the key to political progress. This is, for me, the heart of the aesthetic.

The implications?

  • This expanded and old notion of the aesthetic is a key to understanding (parsing) human experience, and so has considerable application to human centered design (consider how it takes us far beyond cognitive science, behavioral psychology and ethnography, mainstays of HCD).
  • Be mindful of medium as making – engaging with things and places so as to represent, to witness, to make manifest.
  • Attend to the particular qualities of engagement with site and thing – haecceity (sense of hereness) and quiddity (the whatness of things) – accepting that, in the performance of encounter, in being represented, there will always be more to say, depict, to do.

So we can recognize the allure of ruin, while witnessing the presence of the material past that should not be forgotten.


Lindisfarne, photograph by Thomas Annan (1860s), illustrating Scott’s poem Marmion


Linfisfarne, photo by MS, Leica Noctilux (1976)


Turner’s frontispiece of Dryburgh Abbey and Bemersyde House, title page to Volume 5 of Scott’s collected poetry (Cadell 1831)


The graves of Scott and Haig in the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey

The references

My works are available in PDF at

The theatre/archaeology of Pearson|Shanks is under archiving effort at

Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. London: Routledge, 1990.

Adorno, Theodor W., Gretel Adorno, and Rolf Tiedemann. 1984. Aesthetic theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Andreassen, Elin, Hein B. Bjerck, and Bjørnar Olsen. 2010. Persistent memories: Pyramiden – a Soviet mining town in the high Arctic. Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press.

Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foster, Hal. 1996. The return of the real: the avant-garde at the end of the century. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1986. “Nietzsche, genealogy, history.” In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Kaye, Nick. 2000. Site-specific art : performance, place and documentation. London ; New York: Routledge.

Harman, Graham. 2002. Tool-being : Heidegger and the metaphyics of objects. Chicago: Open Court.

Harman, Graham. 2005. Guerrilla metaphysics : phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

Harman, Graham. 2012. The Quadruple Object. Winchester UK: Zero Books.

Harman, Graham. 2013. Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism. Winchester UK: Zero Books.

Kant, Immanuel. 1999 (1781). Critique of pure reason. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lowenthal, David. 1996. Possessed by the past : the heritage crusade and the spoils of history. New York: Free Press.

McLucas, Cliff. 2000. “Ten feet and three quarters of an inch of theatre: a documentation of Tri Bywyd – a site specific theatre work.” In Site specific art: Performance, Place and Documentation, ed. Nick Kaye. London: Routledge.

Morton, Tim. 2011. Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology. Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19 (2): 163-190.

Morton, Tim. 2012. Realist magic: objects, ontology, causality. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press.

Morton, Tim. 2013. Hyperobjects: philosophy and ecology after the end of the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2010. In defense of things: archaeology and the ontology of objects. Lanham: Altamira Press.

Olsen, Bjørnar, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher Witmore. 2012. Archaeology: the discipline of things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pearson, Mike. 2007. In Comes I: performance, memory, and landscape. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Pearson, Mike. 2010. Site-specific performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Pearson, Mike, and Michael Shanks. 1996. Performing a visit: archaeologies of the contemporary past. Performance Research 2: 42–60.

Pearson, Mike, and Michael Shanks. 2001. Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge.

Pearson, Mike, and Michael Shanks. 2013. “Pearson|Shanks —Theatre/Archaeology — return and prospect.” In Art and archaeology: collaborations, conversations, criticisms, eds. Ian Russell and Andrew Cochrane. New York: Springer.

Pearson, Mike, and Michael Shanks. 2014. Autosuggestion: between performance and design. Performance Research, forthcoming.

Russell, Ian, and Andrew Cochrane. 2013. Art and archaeology: collaborations, conversations, criticisms. New York: Springer.

Shanks, Michael. 1992. Experiencing the past: On the character of archaeology. London: Routledge.

Shanks, Michael. 1995. “Archaeological realities: embodiment and a critical romanticism.” In The Archaeologist and his/her Reality: Proceedings of the 4th Nordic TAG Conference, 1992, eds. M. Tusa and T. Kirkinen. Helsinki: Department of Archaeology.

Shanks, Michael. 1997a. “Photography and the archaeological image.” In The Cultural life of images: Visual representation in archaeology, ed. Brian Molyneaux. London: Routledge.

Shanks, Michael. 1997b. “L’archéologie et le passé contemporain: un paradigme.” In Une Archéologie du Passé Recent, eds. Alain Schnapp and Laurent Olivier. Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

Shanks, Michael. 1998. The life of an artifact. Fennoscandia Archaeologica 15: 15-42.

Shanks, Michael. 2007. “Digital media, agile design and the politics of archaeological authorship.” In Archaeology and the media, eds. Tim Clack and Marcus Brittain. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Shanks, Michael. 2012. The Archaeological imagination. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Shanks, Michael. 2013. Let me tell you about Hadrian’s Wall … : Heritage, performance, design. Amsterdam: Reinwardt Academie, Amsterdam School of the Arts.

Shanks, Michael, and Connie Svabo. 2013. “Archaeology and photography: a pragmatology.” In Reclaiming archaeology: beyond the tropes of modernity, ed. Alfredo González-Ruibal. London: Routledge.

Svabo, Connie, and Michael Shanks. 2014. “Experience as excursion.” In Experience design, ed. Peter Benz. London: Bloomsbury.

Welsch, Wolfgang. 1996. Grenzgänge der Ästhetik. Ditzingen: Reclam.


critical design – what if?

I am in Manhattan at Bard Graduate Center, celebrating its twentieth anniversary, its explorations of decorative arts, design history and material culture in research, pedagogy, exhibition and curatorial practice [Link]. Like any good celebration we’re looking forward as well as back. This morning was about imagining the future of museum and gallery exhibition. This afternoon was dedicated to how we see the future of research. [Link]

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Architecture and Design and Director of Research and Development at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) [Link] spoke about the way a museum exhibition can provoke discussion by taking us through some of the exhibitions she has curated. She showed us a new experiment – Design and Violence

We are inviting experts from fields as diverse as science, philosophy, literature, music, film, journalism, and politics to respond to selected design objects and spark a conversation with all readers. Pairing the critical thinkers we most admire with examples of challenging design work, we intend to present case studies that will spark discussion and bring the relationship between design and violence to center stage for designers and the people they serve—all of us. [Link]

Recent exhibitions at MOMA have explored design themes under titles like like “Born out of necessity” – design as problem making as well as problem solving.


Born out of necessity – the 2012 exhibition at MOMA curated by Paola Antonelli and Kate Carmody questioning the premise that (industrial) design is about problem solving [Link]

Paola connects such an effort with her enthusiasm for

critical design – designers and their objects asking the question

“What if …?”

The term includes just the kind of things we’re doing in the Design Columns at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen [Link]

And it doesn’t include just studio design pieces.

critical design – the concept car

Just yesterday I was talking with Masato Inoue of Nissan about his extraordinary concept cars. Cars that will never be made but may change the future of the automobile because of the questions they pose. The Mixim said – What if a car offered an exhilarating experience of speed that did not necessarily involve going fast? – by running live video footage across the whole width of the dashboard from low-mounted front-facing cameras.


Nissan Mixim – concept car 2007

The point of our Design Column at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen is to provoke and engage. To follow the traditional principles of critique – to inquire into the possible conditions of design and its objects.

Things are unstable, multivalent, subtle, irreducible to word and image. Working with this inherent multiplicity of things, their refusal to be reduced to simple statements, their capacity to inspire response and conversation, their connecting power, as tools and modes of communication, makes for a powerful rhetoric, where we can explore matters of complex human concern such as creativity, power, violence. This was a point very well made today by Garry Hagberg and Ivan Gaskell. And it involves the museum – a third space where such conversations can occur – as I argued recently – [Link]

And what are the tactics of critical design, of the critical design museum?

  • intervention and interruption – interrupt a conventional exhibition – Banksy does this [Link], and not just in museums. Elsewhere I have connected such a tactic with Brecht’s epic theatre [Link] [Link] [Link] – interrupting complacency
  • thematics – mount an exhibition that is not about genre, artist, period or region, but takes up a theme like violence
  • actualities – mount an exhibition that offers comment on something in current concern – such as our Design Column about data [Link]
  • contexts – explore relationships, juxtapositions and connections (design and violence; design and data)
  • site specifics – use the characteristics of architecture and space, treating the gallery, or whatever is the location of the exhibition, as an integral component of the exhibition

The merging of object, event, and site can make of the museum (without walls) – gesamptkunstwerk – a total-work-of-art [Link]


Paola Antonelli at Bard Graduate Center today – 8 November 2013

third (creative) spaces

I have always been fascinated by places like railway stations, hotel rooms, bars and cafés, airport lounges, onboard a long-haul flight, looking out of the window.

Some of them anyway.

Neither here nor there. Interstitial. Liminal. Transitional. Conduit. They can offer permission to step to the side, think, imagine, to interrogate complacency.

They are the interstitial spaces of rites of passage.

These are liberating


I’ve just spent a few days in one of my favorites. Pincoff’s Hotel in Rotterdam. An old customs house where the past clings on in a warm unobtrusive present.



One of the most potentially powerful of thirdspaces is the museum.

Sjarel Ex, of Boijmans van Beuningen, sees the museum as gesamptkunstwerk – where all sorts of things and imaginings can be assembled – thirdspace.

Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zones. [Link]

A gallery – archaeographer – thirdspace


Cafe Scheltema, Amsterdam – [Link]


Aux Bons Crus, Paris


The Shakespeare, Durham


The Ahwahnee, Yosemite

heritage futures – a design paradigm

Last May I delivered the Reinwardt Memorial Lecture at Amsterdam School of the Arts – [Link]


This week it was published as an illustrated booklet – Let me tell you about Hadrian’s Wall: Heritage, Performance, Design The 2012 Reinwardt Lecture. Amsterdam School of Arts, 2013

Background: phases in the growth of the heritage industry this last 40 years, as I have tried to describe in some of my writing:

Heritage – self consciousness. In the 1980s the rapid growth of the heritage industry, cultural resource management as it is known in the US, became very evident – new museums opening, more and more references being made to cultural legacies that were in need of attention and protection, a growing professional sector of heritage and cultural resource managers to attend to the remains of the past-in-the-present and offer them up to the public.

Heritage – politics. Chris Tilley and I, in our 1987 book Reconstructing Archaeology [Link], dug into the politics of cultural conservation and received a hostile reception when we argued that the heritage industry made conspicuous what was already the case with academic archaeology – that any work done on what remains of the past is always, of course, located in the present and so embroiled in the cultural politics of communities, states, institutions – there can be no value-free study of the past for its own sake. Since then it has become orthodox understanding that archaeology and heritage are wrapped up in changing modernist notions of tradition, history, agency, nationalism – key components of how we see ourselves connected to where we have come from, as individuals, in communities and nation states, as a species. This is explored in great detail in my book Classical Archaeology: Experiences of the Discipline (1996) [Link] and in the discussions with archaeologists that I edited with Bill Rathje and Chris Witmore under the title Archaeology in the Making (2013) [Link].

Heritage – creative cultural production. In Experiencing the Past (1992) [Link], a follow up to my work with Tilley, I elaborated this notion of archaeology/heritage as creative cultural practice. Randy McGuire and I proposed in an article in 1996 for American Antiquity that archaeology is craft – skilled labor done with the remains of the past. It is simply their particular specialization that distinguishes academics and professionals from others who also work on what remains, a society of amateur local historians, for example. Such a notion of heritage as active and dynamic shifts focus from conservation efforts aimed at the stewardship of sites and artifacts, from cultural property to the manifold of engagements between the past and the present, the celebration of intangible vernacular tradition and folklore, for example, as much as the presentation of ancient arts in a national museum. The Archaeological Imagination (2012) [Link] traces some of the historical roots back to the eighteenth century.

Heritage – performance. Heritage is about performing the past. Performance is a powerful concept that helps refine the understanding of dynamic engagements between past and present. Mike Pearson and I explored some ways that this could be activated in our book Theatre/Archaeology (2001) [Link], and in a recent review [Link].

Heritage – design. In Archaeology: the Discipline of Things (2012) [Link], Bjørnar Olsen, Tim Webmoor, Chris Witmore and I outline a unified field of pragmatology – the concern with things-and-things-done (the meaning of pragmata) that includes archaeology, anthropology, science studies, histories and sociologies of technology, and design.

In Let me tell you about Hadrian’s Wall I draw upon experiments in theatre/archaeology as a hybrid of contemporary art and archaeology, as well as my work in the design school at Stanford and suggest ways that we explicitly acknowledge that heritage is a field of design.

Here’s a description of how this might look, taken from the end of my new book:

… begin in medias res with a design challenge or brief. Here, imagine it is a local archaeological museum. Research the context — ethnographically, or by whatever appropriate means, with an eclectic research methodology that aims to establish deep, empathic insight into needs and desires of clients, constituencies, and communities. Define the problem/need/desire, or else redefine — building a museum may not be the solution to local circumstances and points of view. Make this definition design actionable, something that can be addressed by a service, a product, an experience, something made or assembled. Ideate: generate ideas and possible solutions to the challenge/brief—perhaps enhanced support for a local history society may be just what is needed. Choose some of these ideas for prototyping: material models/mock-ups that can be shared, showing possible solutions, not specifying a definitive answer. Show, rather than tell. Share these models, test them out with people to see how they work, or not — evaluate. Perhaps it emerges that what really is at stake is demographic in character — a disjunction between the attitudes to the local past of younger and older generations. Repeat/iterate with another prototype. Build when force of circumstance dictates (depending on feasibility of technology and resources, practical and economic viability). Be aware that any ‘solution’ is provisional.

In all of this process there is rich and flexible interplay between action, inscription and description, research and theory, fabrication and display, with agents, witnesses and audiences, experts and users constantly exchanging roles in collaborative co-creating teams or communities that recognize little hierarchical structure. Such design thinking connects with what I have outlined as agile management (Shanks 2007). This pragmatics is about informed intervention under a tactical attitude, performative remix and assemblage, post-disciplinary, because it freely can combine scientific research and expressive arts, and located in specific encounters between past and present. There is both ambition to make a difference and contribute to well- being, as well as a humility that stands by work done while recognizing how provisional that work always is.

I suggest that here we have a way of practically carrying the insights afforded by performance art, ideology critique, archaeological theory, and critical heritage studies into heritage management strategies and structures, making actionable their points about the ontology of the past (located, constructed, dynamic, tangible and intangible).

Here is the book – Heritage, Performance, Design: The 2012 Reinwardt Lecture. Amsterdam School of Arts, 2013