In the time of Covid-19, governments have asked citizens to protect themselves by radically reorganising their lives – from practising social distancing, to working remotely and caring for family and friends in domestic or virtual spaces. While these measures are put in place to prevent or slow down infection, a work ethos oriented towards productivity has, in many cases, intensified. In other words, forms of burn-out and the ongoing exploitation of bodies become even more pressing. Het Nieuwe Instituut was invited by Ardeth magazine to become theme editor for their latest call for papers. BURN-OUT. On planetary exhaustion and alternative public infrastructures invites architects, designers, historians, researchers and theorists to take the current conditions of burn-out and exhaustion as a point of departure for reimagining forms of organisation, governance and action. Deadline: 30 July 2020.
Multi-scalar, exploitative structures are everywhere. In confinement, immaterial labour (emotional, affective, domestic, digital, creative) has increased exponentially. Frequently, any resistance or reluctance to perform such work is met with claims of lack of empathy or solidarity. Indeed, solidarity and empathy are particularly needed today. Yet, in times of crisis, as the questioning of power structures remains a secondary concern, the domestic and informal systems of support and care are even more vulnerable to exploitation.
For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on certain workers – nurses, doctors, security forces – who can’t work from home and are mobilised to provide care and support to the rest of the population. These communities – disproportionately female, black, Asian and minority ethic people – are exposed to the risk of either contracting the virus through their jobs or of being laid off.
Although the manifestations and effects of exploitative and extractive structures are becoming more visible and pressing, the Covid-19 pandemic has also given renewed perspectives on small-scale logistical networks and structures of care as local communities find ways to support each other through offering everyday services and connecting on ‘community organisation apps’ like Nextdoor. Some shift from supermarket chains to local neighborhood shops or harvest their community gardens instead.
Yet the social distancing policies, lockdowns and travel bans could, in the medium and long-term, unleash the criminalisation and marginalisation of 'the stranger' and fuel rising nationalism and xenophobia,. Renewed attention is therefore needed to safeguard public spaces and infrastructures for collective gathering, communication and solidarity. For instance, the strategies to control the pandemic have rendered visible the importance of infrastructures such as the internet network for our daily lives and social, cultural and economic activities. Yet internet access is an unevenly distributed resource and its distribution is also subject to increasing surveillance tactics. The current situation, therefore, also exacerbates inequalities – often related to class, gender and ability – among populations and territories.See for instance: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/opinion/coronavirus-child-abuse.html
In addition, these digital platforms, ensuring the continuation of public life, gathering together and communication during the pandemic, are often centralised and privately owned. Should vital digital technologies remain private, for-profit services, or could the often-monopolistic platforms be opened up and transformed to become basic public services?
In the current context, not only the public nature of the infrastructure is at stake, but also its impact on the environment. The remote and digital work performed by those working from home has stretched the performance of digital infrastructures and generated an increasing amount of traffic on networks around the world. With every click, every virtual meeting, message, meme, with every hour (and there are many) spent at home, in front of our devices, sharing, communicating, reading the news, watching series and movies, or attending online concerts, debates and museum tours, humans are contributing to one of the greatest rates of data production and circulation in history.
After the first home-office week last March, many companies reported an increase in the use of their services. In America and Europe alone, for example, Microsoft announced that its platform, Microsoft Teams, has risen from 32 million daily active users to 44 million, who in turn generated over 900 million meetings and calling minutes each day.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/technology/coronavirus-facebook-amazon-youtube.html Facebook confirmed that traffic for video calling and messaging had exploded.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/technology/coronavirus-facebook-amazon-youtube.html In Italy, quarantined youngsters playing PC games increased traffic over Telecom Italia SpA by 90% compared with the previous month. While in other parts of Europe, traffic to WebEx, a Cisco video conferencing service, soared as much as 80% in one week.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/technology/coronavirus-working-from-home-internet.html Between 20 February and 15 March 2020, downloads of Netflix’s app jumped 66% in Italy. In Spain, they rose 35%.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/technology/coronavirus-facebook-amazon-youtube.html
The growth of current data production not only means increased profits for a few companies, it also carries environmental risks. Data has a material dimension, a physical presence. It occupies space and comes with a large environmental footprint. Data centres and cloud computing depend on a high consumption of renewable and non-renewable energy and produce waste and greenhouse gas emissions. During the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, many praised the positive impact of the crisis on the environment triggered by the reduction of emissions in sectors such as industry and transportation. Meanwhile, the information about the direct electricity consumption of data centres, data infrastructures and households remained undisclosed.
The increasing pressure on the planet of an expanding digital reality and its associated escalating energy consumption has to be taken into consideration, as does the impact of the production, usage and disposal of computers and other devices. In addition, the current crisis also threatens efforts to meet the climate commitments that have already been made by local and global governments, as they come under pressure to put climate initiatives on hold.
At this very moment, there is a need to conceive and activate alternative forms of collective organisation and action, as well as renewed notions of publicness and its associated spatial practices. This issue of Ardeth invites architects, designers, historians, researchers, and theorists to take current conditions of burn-out and exhaustion as a point of departure to reimagine forms of organisation, governance and action. Authors can take burn-out as a condition from which to rethink the role of institutions and infrastructures in sustaining and enhancing public life, promoting action and catalysing change into new structures and relations:
- In which ways have the terms and practices of social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine historically shaped the construction and understanding of public space, and how do we mitigate their effects on the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic?
- How can existing structures and infrastructures be reshaped to support new notions and spatial practices of care?
- Essays could reconsider and explore alternatives for contemporary modes of production designed for the wellbeing and care of bodies from a local to a planetary scale. How can we activate forms of collective responsibility and organisation, and relational networks of solidarity?
- How do practices of privatisation, surveillance and control – which ensure productivity through the rearrangement of time – profoundly alter ideas of publicness and conceptions of public and private spaces?
- With the current virtualisation of life, what new strategies could be implemented to claim digital infrastructures as collectively owned, public platforms?
- When infrastructures on a variety of scales render various bodies trackable, how do we reinstate moments of civil disobedience? And, as it has become clear that the Covid-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on public and private life, how to assess new and reinforced temporalities of instability and insecurity?
- In both recent and less recent pasts, instances of public health emergencies and successive chains of economic and governmental crises have seen the emergence of both monopolising corporations and alternative organisational structures. How can we learn from previous comparable occurrences? What are examples of alternative organisational structures that emerged in response to similar historical and more recent crises, such the Spanish flu, Ebola, and SARS epidemics and the financial depressions often associated with them.
Entries could address imaginaries, protocols, epistemologies, new vocabularies, spatial relations, forms of action, and historical examples that aim to catalyse change towards non-exploitative spaces and relations. Learning from decolonial, post-Anthropocentric, queering epistemologies, proposals could envision more equitable and inclusive social, political, technical, biological and institutional ecologies.
About this call
In agreeing to guest edit this call, Het Nieuwe Instituut’s intention is not to instrumentalise the dramatic situation we are living through, which is taking so many lives worldwide. Our thoughts go to all those affected by the Covid-19 virus and their families, as well as those working in hospitals and the care sector across the globe.
Whereas the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified conditions of exhaustion and personal and institutional burn-out that were already present in society, the aim of this call is to address the present not as an exception, but rather as part of a systemic and larger condition.
As such, this call is part of an ongoing investigation of burn-out by Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Research Department and associated research fellows. In 2018, the institute’s annual call for research fellows – guest curated by 2017 Research Fellow Ramon Amaro – focused on burn-out as a malady of contemporary labour ethos and structures, and as a symptom of the exploitation of human and non-human bodies. Applicants were invited to propose unconventional approaches and to challenge the inevitability of burn-out. In 2019, the research trajectory aimed to instigate forms of coexistence, sensibility and care for multispecies, collective bodies in times of planetary burn-out. In 2020, The call for fellows will focus on the role of institutions on sustaining or mitigating burn-out conditions, as well on the conception of alternative forms of governance, organisation and institutional collective practices. As one of these institutions, Het Nieuwe Instituut sees this task as its own.
For more information on the Call for Papers, visit ardeth.eu.
Unlike many journals that revolve around the architectural world, Ardeth is concerned neither with outcomes (architecture) nor authors (architects), but instead with operational work: projects. The shift from subjects (good intentions, as taught in universities and reclaimed by the profession) to objects (the products of design, at work within the social system that contains them) engenders an analytical and falsifiable elaboration of the complex mechanisms that an open practice such as design involves. Through a process of disciplinary redefinition, Ardeth explores the falsifiability of design hypotheses as the object that allows the project to scientifically confront errors and approximations.