Case Study
Place Holder
A view from Austin’s walk. [A view of an empty lot, trees, and buildings, foregrounded by a telephone pole.]
🍂 Let's start… [3:05pm]
How are you? The simplicity of the salutation belies the complexity of the question: "how" I am is nothing short of our greatest existential query. How all this stardust gained sentience and sensation, sufficient to feel anything, let alone answer a greeting, is a tough opener. No less profound is the question Where are you?, though our answers usually refer to standardized and addressable social assemblies: a building, a city, a country, an intersection. On a personal level, it's hard to know where, and what, you are without tending to a sense of place. When we don’t give attention to the ecologies that network our practices of everyday life, we’re lost.
The etymology of the word “tending” is to stretch, like a tendon. To 'at' tend is thus to "stretch towards." Attending is a verb, a ritual, and a practice of conscientiously incorporating your surroundings. There’s an uncanny reciprocity that happens when you attend; In the act of stretching towards the arcs, seasons, gusts, accumulations, and flows that constitute an environment, you locate where and who you are in the process. Attempting to really answer Where are you? is an invitation to more closely correspond with the spatial dynamics that enmesh us.
🔆 Where are you? [3:15pm]
On September 16th, I set out on a walk with the explicit purpose of getting lost... and subsequently, found. I’ve been looking forward to this ritual as an exercise in attending with my neighborhood in order to nourish a relationship with my local ecologies, and thus myself. I'm not expecting a revelation, but simply greater flexibility to inhabit the stretch of earth I call home. 
I won't be using maps, GPS, or street signs. Conventional technologies that answer the question Where am I? have become so efficient at coordinating distributed and historical knowledge at a distance, that they’ve in turn relieved us of the duty to practice situated knowledge locally. Instead, I've built my own copilot that stays at home while I am out. It's a simple chat bot that prompts me with questions every 30 minutes. The questions animate and reveal techniques of attendance through correspondence, guiding my afternoon getting lost, as well as this essay.
0️⃣ What holds you in place? [3:35pm]
It's early fall, five days before the Autumnal Equinox. Through a clear sky, the sun glows more than halfway across its daily arc, warming my left side to the Southwest in short shadows. Perched on my roof, my body weight transfers down through wood, to brick, into dirt, and ultimately bedrock below, although everything except the soles of my shoes occupies the atmosphere.
Inhabiting the world means participating in a continuous density gradient, punctuated by a hard transition between solid and gas, softened by the liquid, bones, and air that make up the million people populating the world. This is the threshold for my walk, eroding and metabolizing the unstable division in continuous footsteps and breath.
💨 Wind doesn't blow... it IS blow. Do you feel pressure? [4:05pm]
I'm walking downwind. The wind typically moves Northward along my block, on its journey loosely following the pleated contours of the Atlantic coast. In the fall it brings odor and residue of places far away along a steady vector. The orientation of gusts is my best compass. Wafts of smog in the industrial corridors mix in a particulate ambiance. I pause at an intersection 30 minutes away from home and try to feel the thermodynamics of forest fires 2,800 miles away in the hazy clouds overhead. Seems like a good time to turn.
♻️ Life practices accrete and erode... Where do you feel friction? [4:35pm]
Traversing a contaminated waterway opens into a new industrial zone, a rich palette of heterogeneous erosion complimented by the steady pressure from a gust on my right side. That's South, I think. Underfoot, decades of friction inscribe hummocks and ruts at hard right turns. The interstate is perhaps that direction. Nearby, tire pressure disintegrates the sidewalk into rough aggregate, tracing circulation routes in rubber. The noisy haptic space orients my position within a supply chain of goods, vehicles, and people.
Attending to the environment on foot is sensuous work, because when we stretch, nearly everything is a sensor, an impression of action. The sun inscribes dramatic shadow angles on the stark industrial facades, forming idiosyncratic sundials that populate my path. It's easy to forget that you had to learn how to read a clock. Ecology is a weird compass, and through attendance, we can learn to use it.
🌀 With whom are you sharing time? [5:05pm]
I turn upwind, with the sun on my left cheek, onto a residential block. Most of the front yards have hydrangea bushes. Across the length of the street, the plants fluoresce in heaps of violet approaching pink. Hydrangea's color indexes the PH of the soil they grow in, forming a continuous litmus test, one block long. Autumn on this block emerges from a thousand particulars. Carotenoid, migratory flying Vs, and the smell of decomposition orient my walk in a temporality at the limits of perception.
💿 What keeps rhythm? [6:05pm]
The calm residential fabric of the past two hours is severed by a boulevard running perpendicular to my path. I have to work to not let myself look at the street signs. The road feels like an artery cycling with traffic occupying mostly one of the two lanes. Rush hour—the periodic exhale of urban respiration. The direction and intensity of car traffic replaces wind, sun, and treads as my dominant referent. I turn, moving in the opposite direction of traffic, in the hopes of cutting back towards the city.
Loops proliferate across scales. The solar cycle, gulf stream, urban erosion/accumulation, and rush hour circuit orient my walk in phases. As I go, I continuously convert signs and symbols from context into a sense of location and orientation in the process of localization. Attendance enacts loops of sensing and actuating, not between, but with myself and the world. To answer the question Where are you?, we have to compute ecology at the embodied scale, converting the indices and processes of sensory context not only into symbols and meaning, but expressions of place.
🚧 Who is the route? [7:05pm]
Go straight at the smog, along the shadow vectors. Go left past aggregate and twist through fall litmus. Cross the stone garden path, and turn towards the current. Take a left at the river of break lights and continue till the overpass frames rolling hills of gravestones.
In GPS's capacity to colonize and universalize space and time, it's not simply our location privacy that we are losing, but our flexibility to stretch towards an animate world in subtle and profound ways. How might we use contemporary protocols and networks to proliferate technologies that foster attendance and stretching? Ones that continuously make legible and reveal the complexity of our everyday ecologies, in agonism and reverence? The networks we call home need our stretch more than ever before, but we've largely gone numb. Orientation is a radical form of intimacy. Where are you?
Austin Wade Smith
(They/Them/Theirs) is a designer, creative technologist, and researcher based in New York. With degrees in ecological science and architecture, in 2014 they started the design studio HelloEverything, and are a co-founding member of the art / technology cooperative Soft Surplus. They are currently faculty in the Architecture and Engineering departments at Cooper Union in New York City. Working across spatial design, fabrication, software development, and activism, they explore the reciprocal relationships between spatial media, ecological networks and community resilience; examining questions of agency, kinship, and the politics of place. Their work has been built and exhibited in the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia. They enjoy flying kites, and cultivating orchids.
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