A Conversation with Alessandra Ponte
November 2, 2017
Alessandra Ponte is professor at the École d’architecture at the Université de Montréal. She has also taught at Princeton University, Cornell University, Pratt Institute, the ETH Zurich, and at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia. She is author of The House of Light and Entropy (AA Publications, 2014), a collection of essays on North American landscapes. On October 17, 2017, the Issue Editors spoke with Ponte over the phone. The following is an edited version of their conversation.
In your more recent research and writings, you have shifted away from the concept of landscape and toward what you’ve called a concept of environment. Can you talk about that shift in your thinking?
It took some years and a lot of traveling in space and time. “Environment” seems more appropriate today to describe things without the burden of European traditions of landscape. The term landscape comes from an aesthetic tradition, which is a very limited way of perceiving the world. Is it beautiful? Is it sublime? This is why environment is a lot more interesting. Especially the line of thinking I’ve been following from [Jakob] von Uexküll to [Peter] Sloterdijk—that each of us filters something from the environment that is of interest to us. It seems like a more interesting approach than the landscape approach. By the way, the landscape approach also implies a horizon, which is your topic. The environment—it’s doubtful that you can include a horizon in that.
Now I’m shifting again, and it’s a logical shift. After three years of studying mining in the arctic and subarctic of Canada, my new topic is architecture and information. This idea of technology and how to confront technology was already present in my shift from landscape to environment, but now it’s even more present. For the last four years, I’ve been teaching studio and doing research with my students. One of my students now is doing a thesis project around autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles mean mapping. New maps. The autonomous vehicle is creating a bidding war around mapping. This is extremely interesting because these are maps for machines, maps that are not directed toward humans. So, in all the things that are interesting to me right now, the horizon is not there. The horizon pertains to pictorial tradition, to perspectival construction, and not to what’s happening right now.
We half expected that. For us, the horizon is interesting because it takes part in a process of mapping in that it is a line marking a boundary. Through the horizon we see the territory already as a map. One of the gaps we see between your thinking and ours is the role of land. How does physical land factor into your thinking about environment and mapping?
Right now, my students are going out to buy drones to use for studio. It’s very interesting what’s happening in landscape architecture. For years everybody was talking about infrastructure and systems. Why? Because everybody was working with GIS and satellite images. Now they work with drones, and what they see is completely different. It is a closer, oblique view that can see target-subjects more closely and in a different way than GIS—again, the horizon is not there. What is not yet theorized and could be another project is the notion of space. What is the space we are producing? Some people are recovering [Henri] Lefebvre and the production of space. That is not enough to explain or critique the world that we are mapping today, speaking of autonomous vehicles and the systems they use for navigation, which is not just a banal cartography of streets: it must map events and objects in motion. We depend on this cartography produced by the machine for the machine, but there are also alternative cartographies or counter-cartographies.
In your emails you referred to my essay, “Journey to the North of Quebec,” where I write of electricity and the acoustic space theorized by [Marshall] McLuhan. This idea of acoustic space, the space of new media, comes from Inuit culture, which doesn’t have a horizon. I think that McLuhan could theorize media only because he was Canadian. Canadians have a huge problem with space. This is not a joke about the geography of Canada. Canada is on the margin, on the periphery. It has always been on the periphery of empires, a position that I like very much because you have a great perspective from the margins.
The drone is a wanderer, which brings up the nomadic space that Deleuze and Guattari talk about, which you reference in your essay [“Journey to the North of Quebec”]. Is the drone’s spatial paradigm a nomadic space that is yet completely territorialized? Drones depend on satellites to navigate, so there is a tension between the ability to wander and the massive geospatial infrastructure supporting this.
Your cell phone operates off of satellites as well, and I bet that it’s your best friend. It’s mine, too, but I’m also aware that it can send information to anyone who wants it. I have no control over that. Like the iPhone, the drone functions because of satellites, but you still have agency over it. At the same time, it is also codified. You don’t have permission to go too high or fly over certain spaces. Invention is moving quickly around the use of drones. From what I understand a lot of landscape architects are fast-moving from GIS to drones. It’s producing a different type of landscape architecture. The scale is more intimate with a drone. In fact, the drone reintroduces the horizon for the spectator, which is familiar to us. To look out and over the horizon implies domination and appropriation, but these are human concerns and not machine concerns. The horizon is not a meaningful symbol for the drone, in terms of how it orients itself and functions.
Going off of the intimate nature of the drone in relation to the satellite and GIS, how is territory questioned or created by the drone?
I don’t know if the drone creates territory. I haven’t had time to think about that. What I think is that you cannot separate territory from the environment. And the environment that I conceive of—mainly through Uexküll, Sloterdijk, and others—is that animals and humans inhabit bubbles. Nonhumans and nonanimals also inhabit bubbles. Now, talking to you, I think machines do the same. They select from their surroundings certain things, and this is where they live, in these bubbles of selected signs. That’s the territory. This is the great message of Deleuze and Guattari: to think of the territory not just as produced by the state or power or a corporation, but to think of the territory as the production of the subject. We are all territorial. Think of when you go to a classroom, don’t you always sit at the same place around the table? This is my seat. That is territorialization. There is a great possibility in thinking that we constantly produce territorialization, especially if it becomes conscious, and not just unconscious territorialization. It can become a response to state territorialization.
In that line of thought, your critique of the horizon in the Western aesthetic tradition would be that it doesn’t account for the process of territorialization by us and other animal and machine subjects.
Yes. What’s the horizon for a machine? Or, let’s say, for a deer? Even the autonomous vehicle, it doesn’t orient itself to the horizon. Not at all. A drone is not oriented by the horizon. I hope I am being helpful. My point is not to destroy your idea. Actually, it’s thought provoking for me.
We’re definitely interested in moments when the horizon is not present, or obscured. The horizon remains for us, stubbornly, because it’s physical. Maybe this is just so rearguard, but how do you talk about architectural form within a project like yours that is investigating space and information? What are the implications for the actual buildings that we might build?
This is still a big question for me. I don’t have an answer. But it’s like McLuhan and media—it’s not that one medium disappears. Everybody tells you that the book is disappearing. No way. It’s staying. I think the horizon is going to stay, in a way, but there are now more layers.
Perhaps those layers allow us to think about landscape today without the burden of the Western aesthetic tradition, as you say. Would you go back and revisit the subject matter of some your essays in your book [The House of Light and Entropy], say, on the desert landscape?
I would not rewrite anything, but I would add chapters. I’ve had discussions with other people who say that the essay in that book about desert testing and atomic bombs should have said something about the anthropocene. I don’t think you need the anthropocene, frankly. Not just because it’s fashionable, but because it comes with this burden of feeling guilty for being a human and for using technology. To be human means to be a technological being. It’s our nature, in other words. We cannot be technophobic. It’s very hard to escape this trap—capitalism is bad, the anthropocene is bad, technology is bad, and at the same time you embrace your iPhone. This is what I’m trying to overcome: too-easy reaction and too-easy criticism.
And that can still be critical.
Yes. The point is to be critical and to be responsible. Just to say the anthropocene is bad doesn’t go anywhere. It’s too abstract. You know, it helps to think straight without putting the burden of ethics in the wrong place.