Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Exchange Points

The following may be described as disorienting, technical, fictional, real. It is a story of payment, a story that implies many narratives weaving throughout it. Understand it as only one perspective, use it to find your own.

Chip or Swipe?

Do you remember that long moment around 2015 in the USA when suddenly we were all being asked to stick our cards into the card readers at bodega, hardware store, and grocery store checkouts? Those months of standing at the register confused, asking the cashier “swipe or chip?” This change is part of an ongoing shift from one payment technology to another. But the shift isn’t singular: we don’t only use cards with chips; we also use ApplePay and Venmo and many other new (and old) money transfer systems. This is a story about those systems, the networks they imply, and the implications for the nature of money –– seen through the points at which we exchange goods and services for representations of value.

I stick my card into the combination pin pad and receipt printer, the classic Point of Sale (POS) I’ve seen at most grocery stores throughout my life –– or so it seems, despite the fact that I know the chip reader I am using now only came into significant use after around 2015. After a moment during which I continue loading my groceries, I notice the machine prompting me to choose between VISA DEBIT and US DEBIT. I click the button next to US DEBIT and am prompted to enter my PIN. I type in the four digit code, attempting to hold my hand in such a way so that the numbers I press are not so evident to the cashier who halfway looks away. Pressing the green button on the bottom right, the enter button which rarely says “Enter” on its face, I watch as the machine ticks over. After a moment it flashes “Approved,” “Remove Your Card” and as I do so the cashier reaches back over to the machine and presses several more buttons, first producing a receipt that she tears aside, and then a second from this same chip reading machine and another from a machine on the side, both of which she hands to me as I am still stumbling to slide my card back into my money clip, a clip which holds only cards.

EMV, so named for its progenitors (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa), is the payment method and standard for credit and debit cards which use microchips embedded in the card to communicate transaction data. These protocols support both contact transactions where the chip is inserted into the card reader, and contactless transactions for both cards and smart devices that use near-field communication (NFC) to communicate with the POS. Instead of transmitting card numbers, EMV uses a system of tokenization that sends one-time codes for each transaction in order to limit fraud.

The EMV chips are loaded with Application Identifiers (AIDs) which tell the POS how to route the transaction. Debit transactions use the bundled US Debit codes, so the cards do not have to be loaded with AIDs for each electronic funds transfer (EFT)/processor network.[1] The transaction information is routed through the merchant’s processor. A network switch then passes it to the customer’s processor. They confirm the transaction with the customer’s bank and send that confirmation back down the chain. The customer’s account is immediately debited, and a payment is processed at the end of the business day, sending money from the customer’s bank to the merchant’s through the automated clearing house (ACH). Each of these parties applies or accepts fees for their role in this process, and there can be more or fewer parties involved, with third parties often taking over specific roles outsourced by the banks, and additional network switches happening depending on the deals between the processors involved.

Some documentation, particularly that from EMVCo, which is the institution that manages the EMV protocols, uses the acronym POI for Point of Interaction as opposed to POS for Point of Sale. This is noteworthy because it widens the discursive space between interaction and sale. It better recognizes the stretched nature of transactions — money and goods moving in syncopated patterns that are kept in time by overlapping processes and standards. Our exchanges at the checkout counter are not synonymous with our monetary transactions.

A surprising amount of information about these layers of transaction lies hidden on our everyday objects of exchange, overlooked or illegible. Most receipts are printed with the AID, and while this only lets us glimpse the edge of a transaction’s path, it is one way of sensing these networks.[2] Or look on your debit card; there you will find logos for Star or Plus or another of the EFT networks, imprints of partnership between your bank and a processor.

Interlink and Meastro are Visa and Mastercard’s processor networks, respectively. These are activated when a credit transaction is made. For me, that was the “VISA DEBIT” option. These transactions travel similar paths to debit, but differ in aspects of liability, cost, and time, among others. Credit transactions don’t require a PIN number for instance, and for the increased risk, Visa (or MasterCard) takes a higher transaction fee. The transactions also take longer to process, giving customers float days where the money has yet to leave their accounts –– a longer period before the merchant is paid. Instead of direct transfers, these card networks transfer the funds through the ACH to their own accounts, and then make a second ACH transfer to the merchant’s bank.[3]

Image of a POS device with hands holding multiple modes of payment out to it. test reads: "Contactless Payment! Healthy COVID-19 Defense

Stay safe with contactless payments. All of our devices have contactless payment options and mobile contactless options for curbside pickups and deliveries. Call now for more information.
(Below are wireframe drawings with a list of payment methods): 
Chip card; Swipe Card; Apple Watch; E-check; NFC Phone
Figure 1: Merchant Account Solutions marketing copy for their version of a nearly ubiquitous device.[4] Screenshot taken 11/10/20 –– Marketing copy on the site has since been changed.

As I am bagging my groceries I pull my card out from my money clip and hand it to the cashier. She slips it into the combination pin pad and receipt printer, one variation on the classic style of POS that is used at most grocery stores. I keep rushing to pack my groceries into the reusable bags I brought, not really paying attention to the rapid button presses the cashier is making. As I finish bagging she hands me back my card with my two receipts, one with my itemized bill and a second thinner receipt that says “Credit Sale” near the top. Below that, the receipt mostly contains acronyms with numeric codes following them. I stuff my card and the receipts into my pocket as I exit. Checking them after returning home has become a habit since starting this ethnography. Previously I either did not bother taking receipts from merchants or I threw them out almost immediately.

The ephemeral nature of receipts has always made me curious as to their function. Sometimes important as proof of purchase when returning items or contacting the company that made a product about a warranty, most of the time receipts are discarded, or they are forgotten in pockets where their thermal printing soon fades from the gloss paper. Perhaps a careful household bookkeeper checks the receipts to make sure they weren’t overcharged, or the receipts are handed over for expense reporting after a company business trip, and the long paper strips grow ever longer with the coupons printed on them to create company loyalty,[5] but for the most part receipts do not seem to be worth the paper they are printed on.[6]

Two strips of wrinkled receipt paper sit side by side. One contains information about what was purchased, the other information about the transaction processing.
Receipt from an undisclosed grocery in Brooklyn NY, 10/15/2020.

What about the merchant copy? I still watch cashiers tear off the first receipt before handing me my copy, though I never can tell where they set it aside. Credit transactions like the one described above used to require that customers sign the merchant’s receipt on transactions over a certain amount. These signatures haven’t been required by the major credit card companies since around 2018,[7] but there are still merchants who require signatures, primarily as a hold over from when it was required for fraud prevention or otherwise as used by restaurants and similar establishments when collecting tips.[8]

Just as receipt signatures are unevenly deployed, the same is true of the debit card’s other payment technologies. While most cards issued in the US today are EMV compliant, and almost all transactions use the EMV chip for either contact transactions where the card is dipped into the reader, or contactless transactions that utilize NFC to share data between the card and POS, these cards still have magnetic stripes on their back which contain the card information, not to mention the raised numbering on the front that allows for imprints of the cards to be made. This acts as a backwards compatibility mechanism which allows the new cards to work with legacy POS systems, though the liability for fraud on magnetic stripe transactions was placed on the merchants, enforcing the switch to EMV chip readers –– the awkward switch-over this article started with.

David Stearns (2018) suggests that the plastic charge card “may soon go the way of 8-track tapes and VHS videocassettes.” And while it is a medium likely outlasted by cash and subsumed by digital wallets, the choice Stearns makes by invoking these other magnetic tape technologies points to the changing networks around the card itself. As the technology of the 8-track and the magnetic stripe are not dissimilar, it is easy enough to use audio playback equipment to skim data from the card that can be used for fraud. This is also the technology Square used in its meteoric rise. The original device that launched Square was a magnetic head that plugged into the audio jack of a smart phone, allowing the smart phone to become a POS device (Mainwaring 2018; Morley 2010). An easy and effective bridge between legacy magnetic stripes, audio technology, and the quickly digitizing world of smart phones and e-payment companies.

Friction and Fiction

At one of the NYC greenmarkets I am attempting to pay for my produce, the cold winter breeze uncomfortable on my ungloved fingers. I fumble with my card and attempt to tap it against the top of the Square reader in order to initiate payment. After a second tap I give up; it is my first time trying to use the contactless function of my card, a function this particular card might not have as it is a few years old and not all banks are rolling out the feature.

The vendor has taped the slim card reader down to the table and made a cardboard layout of signage pointing to where I should enter the card in order to use the chip in its ‘contact’ mode. The device had been expanded and melded with the table to become some sort of semi-permanent solution for ‘contact’ payment that removes the human handing back and forth of cards and devices. Keeping the customer at arm’s length during a time when contact brings increasing anxiety.

I slide the card into the chip reader and feel the snug fit; but there are subtleties to this sinking-in which I cannot personally detect. From conversations with an informant and observed interactions I know that card readers, particularly those produced by Square, often require that the card enters at the right angle, or speed, or some similar variable.[9] When the transaction isn’t immediately confirmed I have seen cashiers reach over to pull out and reinsert the card into the device, often apologizing for the technical malfunctions. This material relationship between the card and card reader is quite literally one of friction. The force of friction is what holds the cards into the device and provides feedback to the cashier that they have input it correctly, moments before the confirmation lights flash on the card reader confirming the transaction. At this moment however the card reader’s lights are covered by the cardboard holding it down and so I have to rely on the man running the small stand to tell me the transaction has completed as he stares at a smart phone tethered to the table’s wiring. This can be seen as another form of friction, social rather than physical. As our payments move away from touch, touch screens, and keypads towards personal devices and contactless transmissions, our social interactions change. Here the cashier has to confirm the transaction from what they are shown on their screen, at other times, I might be paying with Venmo and the important information we need to share is the username of the merchant. These interactions are a process of negotiating our trust in each other and in the infrastructures connecting us: trust we share that they will be paid and that I have been charged the appropriate amount; trust that the infrastructures work and that we understand them enough to use them properly. There isn’t more or less interaction or trust between the consumer and the cashier/merchant, but there is a shift in social friction, perhaps most evident when encountering changing technologies like the shift from magnetic stripes to chips, and now to contactless taps and payment apps.

My pocket buzzes as I walk away. A receipt was automatically sent to my email. An email I hadn’t provided to this vendor but to another merchant using Square in the weeks prior.

The digital receipt is minimalist and contains little more than the amount, the merchant's info [redacted], an AID and an authorization code.
Body of a receipt emailed automatically by Square after a purchase from an undisclosed cheese stand. 11/23/20

I wasn’t asked for my PIN during this transaction, meaning that it was run through the credit networks, which puts higher costs on the merchants, or in this case, on Square who bundles the cost into a single, consistent transaction fee (“Learn About Square’s Fees” n.d.). For merchants this is at least a stable solution as Square absorbs the difference between transaction types, paying a little more for credit than for debit (and taking on more risk); in turn merchants pay an overall higher cost per transaction.

Square and other payment processors use design to make transactions legible while obscuring the infrastructures behind them. They do this to different degrees, and we can use the concept of friction to talk about the different ways in which we collide with and rub up against those infrastructures. Some companies like Square use design in order to craft a smooth experience for the merchants who are their customers and for the merchant’s customers. They do this through the design of their sleek devices and through the experiences they create with their bundled fees and automatic electronic receipts. Others focus less on their veneer, and we see a little more of what lies beneath –– receipts with codes internal to that particular merchant’s systems of stocking or accounting, prompts and questions about which network the customer wants their card to use.

There are also multiple fictions being created or rather realities. When a debit card is used to make a purchase the banks and card networks merely confirm the availability of funds and validity of the card; the funds are processed at a later time. Or moreover, when an offline transaction is made the PIN number is confirmed by the card’s EMV chip through the merchant’s POS device without informing the bank — the transaction processes when the POS is reconnected to the network. But from the perspective of the customer and the merchant the transaction is complete. Thus there are multiple ontological pathways that can be experienced –– parallel realities between the social transaction that lets me walk out with my groceries where physical goods are traded for the promise of payment and the technical processes that transfer funds between banks eventually reimbursing the merchant.[10] But these realities can smash into each other. When a payment bounces or an item is returned or fraud occurs, who is liable is determined by the method of payment and the networks used. Whether or not I ‘actually’ paid for my groceries is a fact that is subject to future determination.

The City

I used OMNY on New York City’s MTA for the first time while writing this article. Coming out of my conversations with friends and colleagues, the metaphor of the city had solidified as a way to discuss the overlapping infrastructures of payment networks. This crystalized with the MTA, itself an evolving case study of payment technology. Most MTA turnstiles still have a slot in the top that once accepted fare tokens and which, before that, accepted dimes and nickels (Zamir 2011). Now most days I pay with a prepaid charge card with a magnetic strip, which I swipe through a raised reader at the top of the turnstile. But not for long; over the last year or so new, glowing screens have been installed on turnstiles around the city. This is OMNY, a new way to pay for the MTA which relies on NFC technology in your phone or banks card, or at some point in the future, a special MTA card.

Image shows the digital presentation of a Charles Schwab debit card and two recent transactions. One from 1 minute ago for $2.75 with the metropolitan Transportation... (cut off) and another with SQ [REDACTED] representing a merchant using Square.
Apple Pay Receipt of a transaction with OMNY. Screenshot taken 12/06/20

I walk up to the turnstile and click repeatedly on my phone’s home button, trying to get the wallet screen up. This isn’t a feature I use frequently, so it is not easy for me to operate yet. Holding my phone near the OMNY screen I press the “Pay with Passcode” button and enter the digits on my phone. As soon as I do so the plastic rim of the screen flashes from its normal soft purple to white and I walk through the turnstile. My phone has a notification. I open it while waiting on the train and read the simple receipt. There are no AID numbers or other information shown, just the time, a line reading “Status: Approved” and my total of $2.75, along with “Metropolitan Transit Authority” written at the top confirming that I had paid the MTA. But I have to wonder, what happens to my transaction fees? Was the Visa network used or the US debit network? These may not be the questions for this essay, but they are important because if the MTA will be accepting all transactions on this singular basis, there will be a shift in consumer’s transaction patterns from putting multiple rides worth of value on their metrocards in a single transaction, to making a separate transactions over the payment networks for each ride they take.

Wire frame images depicting a NFC easy bank card, an OMNY terminal, and a bus with arrows pointing from one to the next.
OMNY ad on the MTA’s G train. 09/26/20

We should also be attentive to who is bearing the burden of these changes. First of all, NFC devices, whether contactless cards or smart devices, are still privileged items available to a subset of the population. Secondly, the MTA has already experimented with incentive programs that reimburse riders who use OMNY (Winston 2020). Thirdly, currently when I load up my metrocard with money for my week’s rides I am not charged a fee for the transaction; however, the MTA as the merchant presumably is. This means that as more riders start using OMNY and thus making more frequent but smaller transactions, the MTA could face higher cumulative transaction fees. This would depend on the deals they have with Cubic, whom they contracted to create and manage OMNY, as well as the card networks and other players in the payment space discussed in this essay, but if there is any form of fixed per transaction fee like with Square and some processor networks or if NFC transactions tend towards using credit networks, then the MTA will end up paying a higher price overall. If the MTA pays a higher price they will have to raise fares to cover it, at the same time as they are subsidizing the rides of the most privileged, wealthiest riders. Thus the fare increase will fall hardest on those who are already most economically disadvantaged.[11]

Sticker Reads: Only (in all caps), for the rich.
The U.S. racial caste system depends on economic stratification. 
This technology restricts MTA access for low-income homeless and marginalized New Yorkers.
What price is your convenience?
A sticker covering an OMNY ad in protest. 09/13/2020

Expanding from the MTA and OMNY, let me make an analogy out of cities as a whole. Cities –– the old ones at least –– are not frequently planned. They have moments of planning and redesign, but they are the result of historical accumulation –– the piling on of the past that haphazardly remakes and builds on what was there before it, expanding and changing. The parallel running of fiber-optics and phone lines is mirrored by the magnetic stripe and chip, which sit side by side on a debit card. All this to emphasize the complex terrain of payment networks. Like a city built up over hundreds of years, there are layers of infrastructures, not all still in use, not all in communication with each other, each with their own advantages and even more frequent disadvantages –– variously accessible by different groups.

Like Graham and Marvin’s description of divided and classed cities in Splintering Urbanism (2001), payment services are likewise splintered. Speciality charge cards from the Diners Club to the Chase Sapphire create transactional identities (Swartz 2020) that mirror the identities required to access zones of exclusion in the urban sphere. At the same time, payment networks are built upon legacy infrastructures that are constantly being added to, updated, and repurposed. Old sits alongside new in constant cohabitation and conflict.

This analogy extends to regulation. Just as zoning laws dictate the uneven development of the city, standards bodies and payment processors limit and sometimes force the adoption of payment technologies by merchants. Some pay high prices for better real estate or the service offered by Square; others maintain their old buildings or networks but pay for it in increased liability.

A consumer interacting with these infrastructures has similar agency to that which an individual has over the pavement they walk on. The city streets get them to and from work, just as their job pays them through direct deposit utilizing the ACH, and then they pay for their groceries with a debit card which actually runs as a credit charge on the Visa network, debiting the same bank account that their employers paid their wage to. Lives operate on these pathways, and while there are often many ways to get to a destination, the lines we trace with our exchanges are akin to the daily commute: intractable, repetitive, comfortable, and also passing through many toll bridges. Some routes are avoided because of habit, others because of the individual’s particular privilege or lack-there-of, their access to infrastructures.


At the end of the day, this project is an attempt to contrast the lived experience of exchange, and the networks that underlie it. With the analogy of the city I could argue the need for a transactional citizenship. But instead I simply want to prompt further exploration of the systems of payment. By describing the functioning of these systems and their effects and deficiencies I am pointing to their nature as designed objects and suggesting the potential for their redesign. More research is required into these systems of payment, but the bigger question that extends beyond their technical functioning is one of their social role. Through the descriptions of the unevenness of payment methods, both an unevenness of technology and of access and cost, we must ask if the system of banks, payment processors, card networks, and other parties like Square serves the everyday exchanges between merchants and their customers. Are these the exact systems necessary for the functioning of an economy? Can we imagine alternative ways for merchants to be payed? The descriptions made here also emphasize the separate realities that co-exist at these exchange points: exchange between merchant and customer, transactions traveling through card networks and banking institutions. When designing new forms of payment (those that exist now won’t stay the same, if this essay shows nothing else), how can thinking through the separate ontologies of payments and their conflicts help imagine alternative structures of exchange?

Notes on Method

This work utilizes fictioning in its ethnographic vignettes. In respect for Jessica Falcone’s (2020) statement “I do not want ethnographic fiction to sneak up on me” I want to be clear that there is that process of obfuscation here, although this work is closer to the ethnographic side of any plausible spectrum between ethnography and fiction. While I am relying on my own auto-ethnographic experiences I have compiled moments from multiple transactions into single fictionalized events written in the italics above. This is done both for narrative effect, compressing many experiences into a single written account, and as a manner in which to anonymize the individuals involved.

As a consumer I only come to these transactions from that particular experience, I have to imagine the experiences of the merchants; and those of the people who have influenced and built the institutional and material infrastructures are even further from my frame of reference. I analyze those realities through the technical and marketing documentation available to me, imagining as best I can the relations the merchant is forced into. If this work was to be expanded, interviews and other forms of sensing could be used to look behind merchant and institutional decisions.


Enough words cannot be written to thank my informants who talked with me about the payment systems they use and answered my obsessed and obscure questions; the same thanks also goes to Professor Shannon Mattern, Ramon de Haan, and the class of Anthropology + Design 2020. Their influence shapes this work just as it shapes me.


“Complete List of Application Identifiers (AID).” n.d. EFTLab – Breakthrough Payment Technologies. Accessed November 30, 2020.

Falcone, Jessica Marie. 2020. “Genre Bending, or the Love of Ethnographic Fiction.” In Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment, edited by Carole McGranahan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Friedman, Allen. 2017. “What Is Common Debit AID and Why Does It Matter?” April 27, 2017.

Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. 2001. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London ; New York: Routledge.

Hayashi, Fumiko, Richard James Sullivan, and Stuart E Weiner. 2003. A Guide to the ATM and Debit Card Industry. Kansas City, Mo.: Payments System Research Dept., Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Law, John. 2011. “What’s Wrong with a One-World World.” In , 14. Middletown, Connecticut:

“Learn About Square’s Fees.” n.d. Square Support Center – CA. Accessed December 10, 2020.

Love, Derek Edward. 2016. “The Price of Loyalty: Paper Receipts and Their Implications.” SVA MA Design Research. June 2016.

Mainwaring, Scott. 2018. “Dongles.” In Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks, and Other Money Stuff, edited by Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Science and Cultural Theory. Durham: Duke University Press.

Morley, Robert E. Jr. 2010. Card reader device for a cell phone and method of use. United States US7810729B2, filed June 10, 2009, and issued October 12, 2010.

Stearns, David L. 2018. “Mag Stripe.” In Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks, and Other Money Stuff, edited by Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz.

Swartz, Lana. 2020. New Money: How Payment Became Social Media. Yale University Press.

Winston, Ali. 2020. “The NYC Subway’s New Tap-to-Pay System Has a Hidden Cost — Rider Data.” The Verge. March 16, 2020.

Zamir, Monique. 2011. “Subway Tokens: A Dose of Nostalgia.” Untapped New York (blog). July 6, 2011.


  1. For a brief but helpful introduction to EMV and AID see Friedman, 2017 at:
  2. For a comprehensive list of AID numbers, see:
  3. While some of the content is outdated as it is pre-EMV implementation, A guide to the ATM and debit card industry (Hayashi, Sullivan, and Weiner 2003) is one of the most comprehensive descriptions of US payment networks I have found and is what was used for reference for the above descriptions:
  4. A surprisingly competitive space, there are a number of companies who produce and/or provide POS devices to merchants such as Retail Tech Inc., Epos Now, and eMerchantAuthority, but the designs themselves are fairly standard and the differences unremarkable (though perhaps sometimes important with companies always working to future proof their product or selling merchants on a vision of the future, as seen in this copy for Merchant Account Solutions’ suddenly pandemic ready devices).
  5. See Love, Derek Edward. “The Price of Loyalty: Paper Receipts and Their Implications.” SVA MA Design Research, June 2016.
  6. And yet their history influences the ways we conceive of exchange and money. See Receipts in Paid: tales of dongles, checks, and other money stuff (Guyer 2018) and the Museum of Receipts
  7. See MasterCard’s press release on the matter at:
  8. I still cannot fathom why one particular health food market in my local area insists on running every charge as a credit transaction and requiring a signature. The uneven lag in changeover of devices and processes is itself at the heart of this inquiry.
  9. Further research would need to be done to determine the exact malfunction in these devices. It seems likely to be mechanical –– like the magnetic stripe reading dongles before them, some devices are simply fickle (Mainwaring 2018).
  10. This is the same type of ontological multiplicity described in Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple (2002). Also see What’s Wrong with a One-World World (Law 2011) at:
  11. OMNY as a whole deserves its own article researching its political economy and role as infrastructure, but I digress.

Our Final Projects

What a semester! We studied our digital classroom as a networked field site. Taking inspiration from Sasha Costanza-Chock and the Design Justice Network, we examined, through individual auto-ethnographies, how justice – racial, environmental, digital, and so forth – can be designed into (or out of) our immediate material and digital environments: our apartments and city blocks and phone screens. We also enjoyed visits from designer Ahmed Ansaari, anthropologist Andrea Ballestero, designer-anthropologist Elaine Gan, lawyer-designer-artist-community organizer Rasheeda Phillips, and designer Rosten Woo. And our fabulous teaching assitant, Ramon de Haan, supported and enlightened and entertained us along the way.

We were all impacted by the compounding crises of 2020. Some of us got sick or lost family members; some of us lost work or supported loved ones who did; some of us were held in restrictive quarantine when returning to our home countries; some of us were deeply involved in mutual aid networks and “get out the vote” efforts in our neighborhoods. Coursework was not always our top concern – but still, everyone designed and pursued a project that was personally meaningful, something that engaged with timely concerns and/or allowed for incremental progress on their theses and dissertations. Much of our work spoke directly to the year’s challenges, and to the obstacles it presented to our own ability to concentrate and “produce.” We emphasized mutual support and self-fulfillment over productivity. We sought to do what we could within the limits of the 15-week semester – itself already an arbitrary epistemological container, but this year rendered all the more artificial by the long timelines of the pandemic and the election and the fragility of the world around us.

Still, we created beautiful works in progress:

Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism student Alexa examined consumer genetic testing and how the “design” of identity – as manifested through’s testing kit, corporate branding, web resources, reports, and advertisements – masks the messiness and ambiguity of family ties and self-definition. Recounting her own fraught engagement with the service, Alexa’s multimedia project mixes criticism and memoir, and it serves as a prototype for her thesis project.

Media studies student Anna is examining, for her MA thesis, the exclusion of BIPOC voices from turn-of-the-20th-c. World’s Fairs, and how immersive interactive environments – incorporating interviews and archival material from these marginalized figures – could produce sensorial counterhistories. Drawing inspiration from Saidiya Hartman’s work, Anna mapped her own research process and sought to acknowledge how so much of our research involves grappling with archival silences, following hunches, and embracing what Walter Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience.”

Much of anthropologist/designer Ayo‘s research and creative practice has focused on Blackness and temporality. Building on Michelle Wright’s work, Ayo considered how Black temporality encompasses trauma – through repetition, iteration, and recursion – and he tested several “concrete poetry” and wall plaque treatments that explored these ideas.

Environmental Policy student Beatrix, wondering how to give German residents a tool to combat climate change, discovered that many simply aren’t aware of options of green energy suppliers, or the ease of switching providers. So, she designed a traveling exhibition that would, through various interactive exhibits, compare and contrast various energy sources and provide visitors with the resources necessary to make informed choices.

For his thesis in the Theories of Urban Practice program, Blake is examining the spatial politics of Pride. This semester he drew on fieldwork and interviews with Pride leaders to produce a booklet exploring how queer communities have historically created, and continue to build, “soft infrastructures” – including, at the Queer Liberation March, sonic spaces composed of chants and clacking fans – for connecting intergenerational kin and imagining new futures. This publication will later be supplemented with a repository of audiovisual materials (like this video).

Liberal arts student Collin is studying processes and networks of socio-economic exchange. Through auto-ethnography and close readings of a stack of technical documents, Collin pieced together the various hardware, software, institutions, corporations, infrastructures, and protocols necessary to make an electronic purchase. He questioned how the design of these systems informs our understandings of exchange and money – and he’s working to create a “museum” of receipts that capture traces of these networked connections.

Dani, a Design and Urban Ecologies student, is studying mutual aid and networks of care. For our class, she created a zine that aims to “translate basic mutual aid principles into our everyday lives, to integrate them into the ways we form relationships with others, and in the work we do in our respective fields.” Dani encourages interested contributors to map the existing networks of care in their own communities, and to identify where their strengths fit these collectives’ needs. She aims to build on her ongoing fieldwork to create customized versions of the zine for various communities.

Franzi, a Design & Technology student, is studying cultures of misinformation and conspiracy. She focused her semester work on the Querdenken Covid-denier community in Germany, which congregates on Telegram and is “plagued by in-fighting, misaligned agendas and conflicting misinformation.” Franzi sought to clarify this confusing landscape by visualizing some of the movement’s main actors and creating a timeline documenting the November 18 protest against the Infection Protection Act; this timeline illustrates how rumors spread, multiply, and metastasize.

For her dissertation in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture & Communication, Hyo Jung is studying the politics of air as an “infrastructure space” in Vietnam. This semester she began creating a field guide to air in Ho Chi Minh City, examining aerial habitats from the perspective (or altitudes) of motorbikes, trees, and high-rise buildings. The larger project will allow her to examine the material and immaterial dimensions of pollution in various manifestations, and to consider alternative sustainable futures.

Anthropology student Karin has focused her research on energy infrastructures. For our class, she’s created a booklet that introduces us to the entangled systems and technologies composing the “energyscape,” and she maps out these entanglements at various sites throughout Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Karin then looks forward to the smart grid, and how the design of its networks and nodes will impact its intelligibility to patrons.

Anthropology student Léa is studying refugee camps. Drawing on fieldwork, cartographic methods, and the painstaking cross-referencing of numerous datasets and satellite images and other digital resources, Léa has mapped 160 camps around the world. Through this process, she realized that many (temporary) inhabitants of these (similarly precarious) camps were leaving digital traces of their presence on Google Maps. So, Léa created an exhibition, “I Am Here,” that archives these “fleeting moments, suspended in time, forever.”

Responding to mobility restrictions imposed by Covid-19, anthropology student Lilah considered how land art – an art form traditionally defined by its situatedness and necessitating in situ, embodied experience – lends itself to translation in mediated and modified forms. Through a performance / installation project, she redesigned Walter de Maria’s Lightning Fields and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty for her apartment, and considered how this quarantine re-staging – as well as the works’ mediated presence online – structured her phenomenological experience.

Design and technology student Livia has been studying the mechanisms, aesthetics, epistemologies, and politics of machine vision. For our class, she created Coded Portraits, a “workshop framework for understanding and subverting the aesthetics and politics of automated recognition.” The website, which lays out the workshop protocol, outlines various logics of recognition and then, drawing on the work of various BIPOC and non-binary artists, encourages participants to “re-code” their own selfies and thereby build their own understanding of, and defenses against, machine vision and its oppressive (mis)applications.

Anthropology student Mariana is studying the militarization of law enforcement, and for our class she focused on how designed artifacts, equipment, architectures, and protocols, from M14 rifles to first-aid kits, can embody — and often enable — particular militaristic conventions, practices, and values. Drawing on speculative design, Mariana then looked forward to imagine how we might design a different politics of law enforcement; such reform, she proposes, involves redesigning police training and an entire network of support infrastructures.

Photography student Nicholas focused his work on past and present practices of ethnographic photography. He created a booklet that examines two historical case studies – Franz Boas and Beatrice Blackwood – and two contemporary indigenous practitioners, Rapheal Begay and Wendy Red Star, to examine the evolving agencies and contexts of ethnographic photography. Who’s entitled to take the photos, how do they conceive of the ontology of the photograph and the photographic subject, who gets to caption the image – and how do these historical photos “mean” differently when they’re returned to and reinterpreted by the indigenous subjects depicted in them?

Anthropology student Oscar has been studying communication infrastructures. For our class, he prototyped a podcast about mesh networks. This pilot episode includes interviews with several notable technologists, activists, and academics, who address the mechanics, affordances, limitations, and politics of decentralized networks, focusing especially on how these infrastructures are just as much social as they are technical – and how their design embodies a progressive (but precarious) network politics.

Creative Writing student Russell, a professional dancer, has been volunteering with organizations that foster collaborations with neurodiverse individuals. This semester he examined, through participant observation and interviews, how one “designs” a respectful, inclusive collaborative process that centers disability justice. Russell is currently developing a web platform to exhibit some of the work that has emerged from such collaborations, and to feature reflections from both neurodiverse and neurotypical collaborators about their creation processes, in the hope that such insights can foster more justice-oriented future endeavors. We hope to be able to share Russell’s work here at a later date.

Anthropology student Sofi has, like Karin and Oscar, been interested in infrastructure politics. This semester, she focused her work on the FGER federation of community radio stations in Guatemala, and for her final project, she produced a radio show about the Jun Na´Oj Indigenous Women’s Network, which is built on “autonomous” infrastructure and principles of gender equality, and which features not only women’s issues – including street harassment and equal rights activism – but also discussions of broader decolonial “cosmopolitics.” In interviews with Sofi, two broadcasters from the network explain how “Our words are important for us because they are our last weapons to express everything.”

Finally, Design & Technology student Zisiga focused on “invisible borders” – how both physical and virtual thresholds in one’s domestic space cultivate senses of security and vulnerability, or zones of privacy and publicity. Of course many of these domestic security apparatae rely on the kinds of machine vision that Livia examined. In a future phase of her work, Zisiga plans to examine how these borders are manifested in such automated recognition technologies in the public realm in African cities, and how they map onto physical space.

Can the Landscape be Liminal? Experimenting with Land Art Experiences Across New, Unexpected Environments

Lilah R Doris. Anthropology + Design Final Project. Fall 2020.

Over the last few months, I have been thinking about my relationship with the outside world, and how that has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems like over the course of about 3 days back in March 2020, everything swiftly became a site-out-of-place. My cubicle became my living room, drinks with friends became drinks in Zoom squares- also in my living room, restaurants became bags dropped off at my door, museums became flashy “support our collection” buttons on websites linked to donation portals, art became locked away, and travel became something to simply dream of; the outside world became a space of fear, restriction, harm, and uncertainty.

I have always been interested in the 1960s-70s Land Art movement, and how people have engaged with it. The artists of this movement created artworks that are designed to help humans understand and contemplate their relationships with nature.[1] These works pose lofty metaphysical questions such as: do we make nature, or does nature make us?[2] What is the landscape and how do I, the individual, relate to it or exist within it? These works are often site-specific; encounters with the work are designed to help viewers register their own existence in the world. This is often done by utilizing “natural” materials[3] (typically understood as organic materials or materials found in the landscape without human intervention) across large scales to evoke a perceptive reflexivity of placing yourself in a landscape while simultaneously feeling that landscape acts back on you. Many of these works are dependent on the participation of a viewer or an audience to “activate the experience” (Kanouse, 2015, p.44) because the relational approach to the landscape is what works to amplify “understandings of the complexities of human–environment” relationship (Grauer, 2020)

Land Art is a direct response to artworks typically being isolated from the outside world, and the inaccessibility of art housed only in museums or galleries (even though many of these works were usually documented either through photographs and maps which the artist could exhibit in a gallery, or through bringing in material from the landscape and using it to create installations within the gallery walls… but I digress). (Tate) however due to the COVID- 19 pandemic, the landscape itself, and the travel required to get there, has also become isolated from the so-called outside world. So how can we recreate, or even, translate these experiences, when the experience itself is unreachable? Is it possible to translate experiences from one site to another given limitations? Is it possible to use what I have[4] in a relatively micro-environment to re-create a macro-scale experience? Is the attempt at translation valuable on its own as a process of self-reflection and conceptualization of space? Or is it just not that simple?

In his essay, Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space, American artist, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen introduced the term “experimental geography” (Paglen, 2015, p. 38) He explains that “Experimental geography means practices that take on the production of space in a self-reflexive way, practices that recognize that cultural production and the production of space cannot be separated from each another, and that cultural and intellectual production is a spatial practice. Moreover, experimental geography means not only seeing the production of space as an ontological condition, but actively experimenting with the production of space as an integral part of one’s own practice. If human activities are inextricably spatial, then new forms of freedom and democracy can only emerge in dialectical relation to the production of new spaces.” (Paglen, 2015, p. 39) I wanted to take this idea of inquiry without guarantee and try to experiment with creating new spaces, new ways of being within a space, into a landscape, that that I already exist in- my bedroom. Paglen writes that “the task of experimental geography, then, is to seize the opportunities that present themselves in the spatial practices of culture.” (Paglen, 2015, p. 38) To me, the opportunity is the new reordering and re-conceptualizing of space I must undergo due to best COVID-19 safety practices.

For purposes of this experiment my landscape consists of my bedroom. This includes all furniture, décor, clutter, walls, windows, doors, floor space, mirrors, and all electronics. I wanted to engage with art-out-of-place through both my physical landscape, and my virtual landscape, which exists as an extension of my physical landscape. Is it possible to translate a spatial experience across these worlds? And if so, is it possible to set up a framework for future site-out-of-place translations and engagements?

I wanted to treat the production/ transformation of my space into a production of knowledge about my own experience in different landscapes. Following the Center for Land Use Interpretation –“a research and education organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the surface of the earth, and in finding new meanings in the intentional and incidental forms that we individually and collectively create.” (CFLUI) – “we believe that the manmade landscape is a cultural inscription that can be read to better understand who we are and what we are doing” (Scott, 2015, p.6)

To try and see if this were possible, I designed two experiences that follow a similar framework to grapple with these questions of connection to, interpretation, production, and translation of landscape experiences using Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977) and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) as case studies. I designed a materials-dependent, physically representative experience where I find materials in my own landscape that I can use to attempt to translate the physical/scalar experiences that these artworks create, and a virtual exploration that took me through the Dia Art Foundation, Google Maps, Google Images, The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Land Use Database, Twitter, and Instagram to try and best engage with the works. Here is how it went!

The Lightning Field

“The Lightning Field (1977), by the American sculptor Walter De Maria, is a work of Land Art situated in a remote area of the high desert of western New Mexico. It is comprised of 400 polished stainless-steel poles installed in a grid array measuring one mile by one kilometer and six meters. The poles — two inches in diameter and averaging 20 feet and 7½ inches in height — are spaced 220 feet apart and have solid pointed tips that define a horizontal plane. A sculpture to be walked in as well as viewed, The Lightning Field is intended to be experienced over an extended period of time. A full experience of The Lightning Field does not depend upon the occurrence of lightning, and visitors are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the field, especially during sunset and sunrise. In order to provide this opportunity, Dia offers overnight visits during the months of May through October.” (Dia)

For this experiment in landscape translation and spatial/knowledge production, I wanted to try to recreate the experience of seeing lightning, walking with some kind of scalar relationship to a geometric structure, and a reconceptualization of myself in my room-my landscape. I wanted to use De Maria’s artistic and ontological practice and see how it would read across both the computer screen and what I like to call my “at-home landscape laboratory”.

I used the following materials: Lifesavers brand Wint O Green mints (ingredients: sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavor, stearic acid…. Charming!), my iPhone XR camera.

When I asked my brother, who is an electrical engineering: photonics PhD candidate at Princeton University, if he knew of a way that I could create lightning in my bedroom, he told me that if I aggressively chomp on Wint O Green Lifesavers in complete darkness, I would see sparks in my mouth- ok, sure, let’s try it! He did warn me, however, that seeing the between-the-teeth lightning strikes was challenging, and he’d only ever seen it work by coincidence through the reflection in a rearview mirror from the back seat of an Uber. This seemed just elusive (and safe) enough to work when thinking through how to bring the lightning aspect of The Lightning Field into my bedroom. This is how it went:

Lightning Field Video #1
Lightning Field Video #2
Lightning Field Video #3

Observations from this experiment:

  • I was physically involved in the creation of lighting, and it was uncomfortable and painful at times. The first bite was very intimidating.
  • It was very bizarre to see sparks in my mouth from simply chewing up mints. 
  • This experiment ended up being a total inversion of scale, making me feel like a giant even though I’m only 5’5’’ and do not generally see myself as a person who occupies a significant amount of physical space.  
  • Lightning is very hard to capture on camera. The technology isn’t as equipped to focus on more than one thing at a time, like the human eye is. I was not able to capture my experience with lightning on camera, but I was permitted to try because I was the one who made the rules for this project. However, my camera lens wasn’t permitted to see the lightning because of its specs- not that if my phone had feelings it wouldn’t have wanted to.
  • Although strange, minty, loud, and at times painful, it was so exciting and cool to see that my body could create this all while standing in front of a mirror in my bedroom landscape.
  • This experience was multi-sensory: taste, sight, sound, and spatial awareness.
  • I was aware of my surroundings, and my body in a new way. 

When reflecting on the idea of translation of landscape during this process, I noticed that this experiment ended up being almost a complete inversion of the intended experience of encountering the Lightning Filed. For one, the Field is intended to make you feel small in a vast, expansive landscape. It uses the New Mexican landscape to provide a seemingly endless field of vision, with large poles arranged in a uniform, identifiable grid within that seemingly infinite space. The allure of seeing lightning strike one of the poles that make up that grid becomes elusive, desirable, dangerous, and site specific.

During my experiment, placing this grid of mints on my floor made me feel huge. There is nothing unknown or vast about the bedroom that I rent in my Brooklyn apartment. I know what is on the other side of all four walls, I know how long it will take me to walk from one side to the other, I am aware of my relationship- both spatial and emotional- to each piece of furniture or wall art that occupies space, etc. I know the block I live on; I know what is around the corner from every corner. However, placing a grid of small mints on the floor of my at home landscape lab made me feel very aware that this candy was intruding upon the floor space that I usually keep cleared for walking I placed it along the route I usually walk so that I would be hyper-aware of stepping on the mints. I created an intrusion of space, rather than seeking out a space that was designed to feel separate from “the rest of the world.” Unlike the field, I was in my bedroom, so it was easier-than-easy to get to (I was/am already here) and a space I am situated in every day. Due to COVID, I do everything from in here- work, eat, sleep, watch tv, work out, dance, scream, sing, cry, study, attend zoom after zoom, scheme, organize, schedule, think, create, destroy, dress up, listen to music, feel every single moment and emotion, etc. This is a private space I don’t need hours of travel via train, plane, and Dia Art Foundation owned van, a significant amount of money (for me), and a lot of time off to experience. 

Lightning Field in my Virtual Environment

Lightning Field Video #4

Additional Observations/Conclusions from Virtual Engagement:

  • Finding the site was essentially just as challenging as capturing lightning on camera
  • This dual excitement and disappointment about the mint chomping producing a spark but to my eyes only resonated across the Doris family. I guess my mirror and that random Uber rearview mirror now share something sacred.
  • Unlike with the Jetty (see below), I found it challenging to size myself up in relation to the installation. It was challenging to visualize what the experience would have felt like in terms of my scalar relationship to the work and the environment. It was helpful that the experiment turned into such an obvious inversion, because my perception skills could work outward from there.
Reaction text exchange between my brother, Eli, and I

Spiral Jetty

“Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, located at Rozel Point on the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah, is one of the most remarkable examples of Land art. In 1970, assisted by a crew operating dump trucks, a tractor, and a front loader, Smithson displaced some 6,000 tons of black basalt rock and earth from the adjacent shore to form a coil 1,500 feet long and approximately 15 feet wide, winding counterclockwise into the lake. Created at a time when water levels were particularly low, Spiral Jetty was submerged in 1972. Droughts caused the lake to recede in 2002, and the sculpture has remained visible ever since.

The fractured landscape, fluctuating water levels, and the water’s salinity also speak of the artist’s preoccupation with the concept of entropy. Smithson envisioned an artwork in a state of constant transformation whose form is never fixed and undergoes decay from the moment of its creation. His thinking was equally shaped by his understanding of the third law of thermodynamics as well as a fascination in science fiction and popular science.

As a path for walking and looking, Spiral Jetty is a sculpture to be experienced. The act of traversing the earthwork is a prominent image in the eponymous film completed months after Smithson built the sculpture. Along with aerial shots of Spiral Jetty is a sequence of images of the artist running on the sculpture. Reaching the innermost point, Smithson gazes out at the spiral path, lake, and mountains. Spiral Jetty serves as a site from which to view the surroundings—the prehistoric environment that Smithson selected for it.” (Dia)

For this part of my experiment, I wanted to try and recreate a spiral out of mud, salt crystals, rocks, and water to create an experience of spiral formation, awareness of scale, and of interacting with materials in my landscape. I also set out to create a representative triptych of this experience- the original Spiral Jetty work exists in a triptych of site, video, and essay, so for translation purposes I also made one. My triptych consisted of the experiment of making salt crystals on my bedroom floor, the Spiral Jetty playlist I made on Spotify to listen to while making the crystals and the small-scale spiral, and the video footage I recorded documenting the process- my invitation to you, the viewer, into my landscape.

My Spiral Jetty Playlist

I used the following materials in my physical landscape: Epsom salt, water, plant-based food coloring, an old cotton t-shirt, jars, metal spoons, a wooden spatula, a wooden cutting board, potting soil and rocks I scooped out of an aloe plant, cups, water, time, and my iPhone XR camera. Here’s how it went:

Spiral Jetty Video #1
Spiral Jetty Video #2
Spiral Jetty Video #3

Observations from this experiment:

  • Much like the actual jetty, too much water made it disappear. It pretty much fully disintegrated into a wet salty mess. 
  • Entropy had its way.
  • The salt crystals came out very cool. I wish I had made double the amount for a more dramatic effect, but it was exciting that I was able to successfully create this material in my at home landscape lab.
  • I was extremely aware of how much space in my landscape lab this making process took up, the salt spilled out all over my floor, and the water and mud created a mess- I was ridiculously conscious of how close all of these materials were to my other furniture, etc. At one point my roommate’s cat, Carlos, got into my room and stuck his head in the bag of Epsom salt to take a curious sniff, but other than that, I was the only person involved in making. 

When reflecting on the idea of translation of landscape during this process I noticed that it felt very indoor (of course, I was indoors… but stay with me) The spiral jetty is subject to change from atmospheric conditions and weather and time, this creation/experiment/project is only contingent on the final deadline and the conditions of the inside of my home. This spiral will never see rain, feel waves, erode, have people walk on it, or probably even exist in this form for very long. So that there is something that is lost in translation here, however, basic entropy and designed messiness did take part. I created floods of water, I put the salt crystals under different temperatures, I didn’t build a sound wall of rocks to stop the water flow (that I also controlled). While I created conditions that allowed simulated atmospheric and environmental entropy to occur, I knew what was going to happen. Sure, I didn’t know what it would feel like, look like, or what space it would ultimately occupy, but I used my knowledge of weather, elemental interactions, and the space I was in to simulate these conditions. Does controlled entropy count as entropy?

Something that does translate, and is worth noting, is the interaction between the site and the nonsite- which is an integral part of much of Smithson’s work. The “nonsite” is abstract, representational form of a site. It is a “two-dimensional analogy or metaphor” (Smithson, 1968) The site here is my at home landscape; it exists in the form of the salt crystals I made, the mud I spilled, and the experience I had. The project exists on a small scale, in a residential space that only I, the artist and researcher, have access to. The non-site is the video, and it is you, the reader and the viewer. 

Spiral Jetty in my Virtual Environment

Spiral Jetty Video #4

Travel visuals and information:

Flying from JFK to Salt Lake City

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Driving From Salt Lake City to Spiral Jetty
Driving From NSSR to Spiral Jetty

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Biking from NSSR to Spiral Jetty

Additional Observations/Conclusions from Virtual Engagement:

  • Felt more like going on a virtual tour of the work
  • There were enough captured perspectives where it felt easy to situate myself/size myself up to what this experience might feel like for me.
  • The scale of the work came through the screen in a readable way; seeing images of people interacting with it in a variety of ways helped write that story for me.

Concluding Analyses and Thoughts

This project allowed me to think about design, as well as design different ways for myself to think.

Regardless of the shape it took, how long it lasted, what it felt like, or what it tasted like, one thing that rang true to this entire experiment was the deeply personal connection I felt to materials and space. I was able to draw connections between experiences across scales, interfaces, and materials, and I was able to invite in an audience by recording video footage of the making, searching, and thinking process. I was able to engage in a self-reflective practice in relation to the form and content (Kanouse, 2015, p.46) of what I was working with, surrounded by, touching, and thinking about.

While thinking about my own relationship to space and place, I found myself thinking back to Sarah Kanouse’s essay Critical Day Trips: Tourism and Land-Based Practice, where she writes about the pressures of these specific sites where large-scale, earthen, participatory works find themselves simultaneously being reinvented as destinations (Kanouse, 2015, p.45) In this essay she references Zygmunt Bauman’s thoughts on tourism- “The tourists want to immerse themselves in a strange and bizarre element… on condition, though, that it will not stick to the skin… In the tourist’s world the strange is tame, domesticated, and no longer frightens; shock comes in a package deal with safety.” (Bauman, 1996, pp. 29-30) Experiences with sites traveled to become isolated experiences that often exist in another world- an ontology outside of the participant’s (tourist’s) ordinary world. My at-home-landscape acts of making and virtual engagement alleviated some of that pressure of destination; I was not concerned on whether I was getting the most out of the intended experience. No threat of Paris syndrome from my bedroom floor- if you can imagine! If anything, this left me feeling freer to engage with the work I was doing, and the questions I was trying to think through. While disappointing that I couldn’t hop on a plane[5] to Utah and drive out to the Great Salt Lake, it was way less pressure to open my refrigerator and see that my Epsom salt had crystallized. Because this experiment was simple and local, I am likely to do it again with other sites simply just to try it out.

Carrying Paglen’s idea of “production without guarantee” (Paglen, 2015, p. 38) with me throughout the process also added another layer of freedom to the experience. I was able to (mostly… I drew the line at letting mud flow across my entire floor) surrender to my space, the artworks, and the materials, and allow myself to see what happened, both mental[6] and physically. Curiosity about site-out-of-place experiences, engagements across scales, concerns about access, restrictions due to COVID-19, and a desire to eventually be able to break down some of these barriers (echoing on of the initial motivations of Land Art- to break down the barrier between the human and the environment) lead me through an exciting self-reflective practice in spatial and knowledge production.

This framework of setting up both a physical and virtual engagement with artwork that is inaccessible due to travel, financial, temporal, or health constraints could be valuable in thinking through a variety of works-out-of-place. If this project were to continue, and become a more full-on ethnography project, I would like to both do this experiment with more artworks AND involve other people to see how their experience compares to mine when working through the framework I’ve designed in order to generate some more exhaustive and comparative data and field notes. This is just a curious first step! Hopefully simply reading about my experience and watching the process as it happened is able to encourage you, the reader, to start to re-conceptualize your own space and individual relationship with landscapes, environments, and materials. I see exciting potential to develop this into a larger project in the future.

While I don’t know that I can necessarily sculpt something appropriately representative of a Bernini or paint something as in depth as Fredrich Edwin Church, this practice, and process, in taking ideas, philosophies, and ontologies behind participant-activated, earthen artwork felt successful. Two summers ago, I took a trip to Venice, Italy to catch the 2019 Biennale, and in the Turkish pavilion there was a video playing on a loop that featured a masked person wrapped in a striped cloth/pants situation rolling around in an egg-like fashion whilst loudly screaming to a soundtrack of industrial clanging, maybe I should try that next!

Still image of the video installation at the Turkish Pavilion, Venice 2019

Works Cited

Bauman, Z. (1996). From Pilgrim to Tourist. In Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay. (pp. 29-30) London: Sage Publications

Dia. (n.d.). Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty | Exhibitions & Projects | Exhibitions | Dia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2020, from

Dia. (n.d.). Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field | Visit Our Locations & Sites | Visit | Dia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2020, from

The Center for Land Use Interpretation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from

Grauer, K. C. (2020). Active environments: Relational ontologies of landscape at the ancient Maya city of Aventura, Belize. Journal of Social Archaeology20(1), 74–94.

Gilmore, R. W. (2017). Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence. In A. Lubin & G. T. Johnson (Eds.), Futures of Black radicalism (pp. 10–17). Verso.

HENI Talks. (2019, November 12). What is: Land Art?

Kalb, P. R. (2014). Art since 1980: Charting the contemporary (1st edition). Pearson.

Kanouse, S. (2015). Critical Day Trips: Tourism and Land Based Practice. In E. E. Scott & K. Swenson (Eds.), Critical landscapes: Art, space, politics (pp. 43–56). University of California Press.

Land Use Database: The Center for Land Use Interpretation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from

Paglen, T. (2015). Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space. In E. E. Scott & K. Swenson (Eds.), Critical landscapes: Art, space, politics (pp. 34–42). University of California Press.

Scott, E. E., & Swenson, K. (Eds.). (2015). Critical landscapes: Art, space, politics. University of California Press.


Tate. (n.d.). Land art – Art Term. Tate. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from

The Art Assignment. (2017, June 15). The Case for Land Art | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios.

Williams, R. (1980). Ideas of Nature. In Problems of Materialism and Culture. London: Verso.

Willis, A.-M. (2006). Ontological designing. Design Philosophy Papers.

Additional Inspiration:

Jordan H. Carver, “Land Art in the Age of Remote Sensing or: Google Mapping the Spiral Jetty” in the Avery Review 19 (November 2016), http://

Gottschalk, M. (2017, April 18). This Agoraphobic Photographer Uses Google Street View to Travel the World. Artsy.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.

Steinhauer, J. (2014, April 2). A Google Earth Perspective on Land Art. Hyperallergic.

  1. Nature equated with anything elemental, pre-historical, organic, pure, unchanged by human impact, etc.

  2. Thinking here about Anne-Marie Willis’ Ontological Designing, in which she asserts that “we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us.” (Willis, 2016, p. 80)

  3. Many land artists turned towards a “renewed focus on the material rather than the primarily visual aspects of land” (Scott, 2015, p. 4) For purposes of this project and write up, I chose not to focus too much on material, however, I did chose to also utilize materials found in my home- though some were not organic, and some were packaged in plastic or manufactured to serve a human desire or function, they were found in my landscape, so they got to be a part of the project! In his 1980 essay “Ideas of Nature,” Raymond Williams acknowledges a divide between those who view the landscape as a sort of pure product of earth/nature versus a product of human involvement: “a considerable part of what we call the natural landscape… is the product of human design and human labour, and in admiring it as natural it matters very much whether we suppress that fact of labour or acknowledge it.” (Scott, 2015, p. 4) I am acknowledging the products that I have in this space that are a result of my own human involvement, and those involved in the networks (extracting, manufacturing, transporting, collaborating, etc.) responsible for making that possible.

  4. Referencing Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work on abolitionist geography that inspired some of my classmate, Dani Castillo’s- with whom I was lucky enough to collaborate with for this semester’s student-lead presentation – work towards her final project on worldmaking through mutual aid projects. I’m specifically referencing the quote: “people make abolition geographies from what they have, changing awareness can radically revise understanding of what can be done with available materials.” (Gilmore, 2017) This relates to my work in spatial production across different ontologies to help individuals reconceptualize their understanding of landscape, and their relationship to the different landscapes they interact with. I am doing my project solely with what I have access to- materials, space, information, etc.- in order to explore how I can re-interpret myself and re-interpret a known landscape in a new way.

  5. Air travel is one of the big barriers to accessing these artworks for me. Both because of COVID -19 related travel restrictions and CDC guidelines, but also because of money and time. I know I talk about that a bit in the recordings but doing this project has left me thinking a lot about access to art in general. A lot of Land Art artworks are practices in institutional critique, the name given to art that is “designed to examine the conditions of its own existence, from the museums that show it to the groups that value it.” (Kalb, 2014, p. 30) Land Art is a direct response to artworks typically being isolated from the outside world, however due to COVID, the landscape itself has also become isolated from the so-called outside world; Where can, and where will the Art world go from here?

  6. Not opening the can of worms that is “mental” landscape… not this semester at least!