Grima and Varnelis conceived of the New City Reader as a newspaper of public space, whose content probes “the spatial implications of epochal shifts presently occurring in the information industry.” Over the phone, Grima told us that he is particularly interested in newspapers’ capacity to be “a laboratory for the production of knowledge,” and so he approached the project as a mechanism for mobilizing “a diverse network of collaborators” (about 300 people have taken part in making the New City Reader) to investigate “contemporary spatiality” by re-creating the traditional sections of the newspaper (Culture, Sports, Real Estate, etc.) Like Postopolis, another loose framework for networked knowledge sharing that Grima developed, he refers to the New City Reader as “a pyramid scheme of thoughts” in which he and Varnelis invited a series of guest editors for each issue who, in turn, invited a wide-ranging set of thinkers to probe the intersection where, in the words of New City Reader managing editor Alan Rapp, “urban space and information space converge.” According to Grima, what has emerged is “an incredibly heterogenous and kaleidoscopic snapshot that captures the conflictual nature of the relationship between information and public space.”
Kazys Varnelis recently sat down with Urban Omnibus to discuss how the New City Reader came to be and how it seeks to renew awareness of overlooked spatial and social practices in the context of current affairs. -C.S.
Urban Omnibus: How did the New City Reader come to be?
Kazys Varnelis: Joseph Grima and I were already talking about working together when he received a call from Richard Flood at the New Museum who was beginning the curatorial process for “The Last Newspaper.” Joseph and I were talking about how in the 1960s, artists and thinkers connected to obsolete practices in order to re-imagine contemporary possibilities. Newspapers are not yet obsolete, but we wanted to go back to earlier methods of producing and consuming newspapers as a way to investigate critically a variety of trends and practices in the contemporary city.
Joseph immediately suggested a model he had seen in China, the Dàzìbào (大字报), or wall-mounted newspaper, meant to be read — and presumably discussed — in public. Then I began to do research into 19th century New York. A fascinating book called City Reading explains the proliferation of print culture in New York on the facades of buildings. In the 17th and 18th centuries there weren’t many signs on buildings. There actually weren’t any street signs until the 1820s – imagine wandering around New York without any street signs! I remembered from my childhood in Chicago seeing newspapers on walls, and wondered if there was something in this forgotten practice that was worth reclaiming.
Right now, each edition of the New City Reader is mounted on the façade of Storefront for Art and Architecture, in the window of New Museum and also up at Columbia. We had initially hoped for it to be posted in more sites but the realities of permissions, labor, etc. prevented that.
So is the project more about interrogating the practice of sharing information in public or more about critiquing the shifts that the information industry finds itself in?
Both. On one hand, we have the ability to take advantage of some of the technological shifts that decrease the need for the heavy machinery of printing presses. It has only been a couple decades that we have been able to do this kind of thing on a computer, and only ten years that it’s been realistic to do this on a laptop. But while we are taking advantage of those shifts, we are also suggesting that some things are getting lost in the process: like this practice of collective reading, for example, which was pretty common here in the 19th century. If you think about collective television viewing, you might envision some images of people gathered around a TV set watching the Apollo landing or the JFK assassination. These days, I think, that kind of collective sharing of media is reserved exclusively for soccer matches.
In one of your pieces for the New City Reader, you’ve written about the “interdependence of infrastructure, information and social stability.” Tell me more about that idea.
A lot of the work I’ve been doing lately is on this topic. And I think the moment of the blackout in July of 1977 – which was the subject of the “City” section, the first edition of the New City Reader – really signifies this interdependence. Twelve years previous, in 1965, there was a blackout that resulted in very little crime. But the 1977 blackout – with the economic stagnation, municipal bankruptcy and cuts to public services over the previous decade – resulted in mass rioting and looting, with parts of Bed-Stuy and the Bronx in flames, and the total breakdown of the kinds of societal networks that had previously kept the city afloat. We are now so comfortable with the idea that the City can’t possibly collapse. Yet the massive government debt and bad public-private partnerships that led to the fiscal crisis of the ’70s are perhaps not so unimaginable today: just the other day the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how problematic municipal bonds are.
As part of our broader objective to show how connected the newspaper is to the city, we were interested to probe a potential link between newspapers and the prospect of urban collapse. Harvey Molotch’s influential 1976 essay “The City as Growth Machine” described how certain interests see growth as the only possible move for cities. Growth, as we’ve seen in most recent economic crisis, often leads to unsustainable conditions. We’ve all heard that finance, insurance and real estate (the so-called FIRE economy) drive this ideology of growth. But newspapers have traditionally been a part of this as well, with business models based on growing circulation, real estate advertisements and so on. That’s why in times of economic contraction, the newspapers rarely raise any kind of alarm.
On one hand, it seems like the project seeks to critique newspapers as complicit with a lot of trends you find problematic in contemporary cities. On the other hand, it seems like it is issuing a call for civic activities that are shared among strangers, whether that’s reading in public or some other form of collective action.
There is certainly a call for more collective action. There is also a call for other kinds of voices to be included in newspapers. Typically when we think of newspapers, we think of them as media that simply communicates news. But they have a huge amount influence on the physical city. Just as the newspaper plays a role in Molotch’s growth machine thesis, the newspaper also helps to determine the architectural face of the city, particularly in the last ten or fifteen years, when I think there hasn’t been very good architecture at a top level. I think that, in a way, newspapers are partly to blame for this incredible embrace of starchitecture, of fame, of wanting to have dinner with the hot shots.
What does it mean to you that the New City Reader is “a newspaper of public space”? Does this subtitle refer only to the proposed act of collective reading? Or are there other spatial implications that you wanted to interrogate?
I think the idea has to do with the overlapping of different aspects of public space and the public sphere. For Habermas, whether it was the salon or the coffee house, the street or the city itself was a public space, and the public sphere required places where people read and discuss the things that they read.
You think of something like the old Berkeley tree stump — there used to be a tree stump in the middle of Berkeley where anybody could get up and give a speech at any time of day. You can imagine that people might, in public, respond to this condition, to someone making a proposal of some kind publicly, be it on the left or the right. And that’s something that I feel we don’t do much at all today. The Internet reinforces a kind of balkanization where I tend to read one political spectrum of information and other people tend to read another political spectrum. We also tend to live in places that fit us politically, I think.
So is the New City Reader an instrument to replicate the Berkeley Tree Stump or Speakers’ Corner, where contributors are invited to offer an opinion?
You could say the whole thing is an editorial project more than it is a reporting project.
My idea was to do it in a set of sections – Editorial, Sports, Culture, Real Estate, etc. – so, in the end, you have a giant newspaper. Then we decided we were going to look at the section titles and try to get interesting people with exciting things to say – in some cases very political, in some cases less so. In the end, pretty much every project had a degree of political content, which we welcomed.
As a newspaper, we certainly wouldn’t say this is a work of disinterested reporting. Everyone was motivated to do something. But the “disinterestedness” of traditional newspaper reporting is itself a bit of a mask. As an academic, I try to figure out the agenda behind everything. And I do feel like newspapers have a very clear stated agenda that does appear in their reportage, it just happens to be masked a little more. It appears at the level of editing, at a level of what content is selected, at a level of who is hired and what a newspaper chooses to cover.
New City Reader contributing editors:
CITY: Network Architecture Lab | EDITORIAL: Joseph Grima & Kazys Varnelis | CULTURE: D-Crit, School of Visual Arts | SPORTS: Jeannie Kim & Hunter Tura | LEISURE: Beatriz Colomina, Spyros Papapetros, Britt Eversole & Daria Ricchi, Media & Modernity at Princeton University | FOOD: Will Prince, Krista Ninvaggi & Nicola Twilley | REAL ESTATE: Mabel Wilson & Peter Tolkin, SideProjects | BUSINESS: Frank Pasquale & Kevin Slavin | LEGAL: Eyal Weizman, Centre for Research Architecture at Goldmsiths | LOCAL: Geminidas & Nomeda Urbonas (Nugu) & Saskia Sassen | POLITICS: common room | MUSIC: DJ N-RON & DJ/rupture | STYLE: Robert Sumrell & Andrea Ching | SCIENCE: David Benjamin & Livia Corona | WEATHER: Jeffrey Inaba, C-Lab | OBITUARIES: Michael Meredith & Hilary Sample, MOS | CLASSIFIEDS: Leagues and Legions
New City Reader Staff:
EXECUTIVE EDITORS: Joseph Grima, Kazys Varnelis | MANAGING EDITOR: Alan Rapp | ASSOCIATE MANAGING EDITOR: John Cantwell | ASSOCIATE EDITORS: Brigette Borders, Daniel Payne | EDITORIAL ASSISTANT: Pantea Tehrani | ART DIRECTOR: Neil Donnelly | DESIGNER: Chris Rypkema | EDITORIAL CARTOONIST: Klaus | BLACKOUT! CARTOONISTS: Momo Araki, Alexis Burson, Leigha Dennis, Kyle Hovenkotter | WEB DIRECTOR: Jochen Hartmann